We tried to do Observation Rock’s North Face back in August, but the weather ended up being worst that predicted: continuous rain and 70 mph winds. We decided to try again this weekend since no precipitation and wind whatsoever was scheduled. In fact, Saturday was positively summery warm (I wished it was cold of course!).

We picked up our Permit for Ptarmigan Ridge at Carbon River Ranger Station and drove the rough road to Mowich Lake in Mount Rainier National Park on Saturday morning. The trail head was pretty crowded on this sunny day with lots of day hikers. Our boots hit the Spray Park Trail at about 10:00am. Late for us, but it’s only about a 5.5 mile hike to camp.

We made good time to Spray Park even in the heat. The meadows was speckled with tones of red, yellow and orange. Autumn had indeed arrived to the PNW. Last time the mountain had been shrouded in a thick layer of low clouds, but on Saturday the majesty of Mount Rainier loomed very clearly above us. Echo Rock and Observation Rock stood in the foreground of the giant volcano looking much smaller. From that distance the ice wall of the North Face of Observation rock didn’t look that large at all. In fact it looked two pitches and the steepest part at the top appeared to be about 65 degrees. We knew that the appearance had to be deceiving though!

We followed the Spray Park trail until reaching the high point at about 6400 ft at the edge of Ptarmigan Ridge. There is an unsigned  trail near a giant cairn here that goes off to the right along the ridge here. We took that trail across the ridge in the direction of Observation Rock and the moraines. We decided to camp at the first source of running water we found just before the trail got rocky. Water was tickling down the rocks from a snow patch a little above and created a nice stream through grassy patch with a small sandy area perfect for a tent. The site set low and surrounded on three sides by moraines to block any wind. It looked like a wonderful spot and as a plus we didn’t even have to wear shoes in the sand!

We set up camp and took a quick shower in the stream and set up camp. We scouted the trail for the next day a bit from the top of one of the moraine walls that surrounded us and had a quiet dinner as a peaceful evening set in. The sunset that night was spectacular with tons of red and orange dancing across the sky. When darkness fell the stars shown more brilliantly than I ever witness and in the distance we could even see the flickering lights of Seattle. It was, it seemed, the perfect night.

Its seemed that way until exactly 2:30am when I was suddenly awakened. I wasn’t sure what woke me up right away, but then another gust of wind hit the tent. This caused two things to happen. The first thing was that it made the walls of the tent flap creating quit the ruckus. The second this was that my face face got sand blasted. We didn’t recall strong winds to be in the forecast… nor had it occurred to use that our little sandbox tent site would cause any issues. But as it turned out the wands came from the one direction not blocked by the moraines and blew harsh showers of sand into the tent… the strange thing was that the sand seemed to be coming from the ceiling of the tent. We still can’t figure that one out. Needless to say not much sleep occurred after that. We ended up getting up at 4:30am instead of 5 and packing up the tent just in case the winds got stronger. At the first hint of light at about 5:30am we headed in the direction of the route.

There was actually a trail marked by cairns through the moraines to the base of the first large snowfield/glacier to the left of Observation Rock. We missed most of the cairns with our headlamps and scrambled up to the highest moraine ridge in front of us off the main track. Below there was a blue lake at the base of the moraines and the glacier. To the right there was a semi clear trail marked by cairns (we could see now) that led along the top of the moraine ridge. We tried to follow this trail, but the wind howled so fiercely it nearly blew us over. We decided to wait a bit slightly below the ridge until it died down a bit. We didn’t wait very long though, we wanted to climb!

Luckily the wind died and we fought our way along the ridge scrambling up and down endless scree and talus. The cairns did, indeed disappear. The general idea was to stay above the small cliff bands heading in the general direction of the base of the route. Then the ridge descends to an ice band just below the route. You definitely need to put on crampons here, but since were were stopped we just geared u completely before stepping onto the low angle ice. After crossing the ice band there is one more final 100ft climb up really loose volcanic crud to the base of the route. But that time I was really, really since of looking at pumice and large glacial boulders. I was ready for ice!

It looked like the crux would be the very top. We decided that we would go straight up at first and then slowing traverse right. The  ice changed color up high creating a color coded line across the top part of the route. We would follow along that line to the top and end the route at the far right near the rock. I led the first pitch. It wasn’t more than 50 degree ice/snow at the bottom. I ran out the pitch placing one picket and building an anchor with my second picket and ice tool. On the second pitch Damien placed only one picket. Then the pitch began to take solid screws. He found a great belay spot standing in a crack in the steepening ice. The pitches continued to have bomber screw placements… in fact, we placed most of our screws in blue water ice!

As we got higher on the route our calved began to burn like crazy, but taking breaks at the anchors and screws helped with the pain. The next real evenful moment was as Damien was preparing to follow me up Pitch 5 (normally this entire climb in 5 pitches, but it took us longer because of the traverse). Damien couldn’t find his leashes and thus carried his tools loose. This was making me anxious all day because I just knew he would drop one. Sure enough somehow his adze sum’tec get unclipped from his harness and skidded down to the bottom of the route which must have been about 800 ft. There was a party getting set up at the base and Damien called for them to just leave it for him to retrieve later. Then he started up with one axe. I figured that from then on whoever was leading would be the climber with the second axe and the follower would have one. thus I was surprised when Damien got to me and said he would like to lead the crux with just one tool. I watched nervously as he left the anchors with his his single axe and head up the 80/75 degree blue ice that just kept dinner-plating.

Damien had more than enough rope to top out, but not enough screws for him to feel comfortable going the final 25 feet. So he built another anchor and created a lovely Hanging belay which looked rather comical from below! I followed and then led the final feet to the top.

My legs felt like Jello as a walked across the ice field to the pumice ridge of Observation Rock. We packed up our gear and headed up the final 400 ft to the summit of Observation Rock which is a straightforward class 3 scramble. We then took the descent scramble trail (unmarked but pretty obvious going first in the direction of Rainier). After stumbling down volcanic crud and some refreshing snowfields Damien and I detoured back to the base of the route to retrieve his tool.  More accurately, Damien retrieved the tool and I waited some distance off on top of the big rock.

Getting back over the moraines to camp was tedious and tiresome. We were very happy to reach our camp and sit barefoot in the sand! It had been an excellent climb. Blue ice, great screws, a funny mishap,  just enough wind to give it an alpine feel without blowing us off the wall and crisp fall temperatures. The perfect opener to the autumn climbing season!



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