Spring and summer climbing season of 2017 has focused particularly on 2 skillsets: carryover and mental fortitude. The fact that our climbs have been centered around these 2 aspects is not an accident; it was intentional training in preparation for our summer project: Kautz Glacier. Most people climb Mt Rainier with a base camp on the popular Emmons or DC Routes. These routes are more or less like a maintained trail going up a glacier. Any danger is mitigated by guides upholding a track steering climbers away for trouble. The only real issue to contend with on these standard routes is altitude. The Kautz is different. This route has two technical alpine ice walls, no tracks, yawning crevasses to navigate, extremely steep slopes and, of course, altitude. It is commonly done carryover style with a descent of the DC route since descending Kautz is time consuming and often dangerous. Additionally, this year the recommended start of the route was Comet Falls TH at 3,600 feet due to the mangled mess of crevasses on the lower Nisqually. Normally the start of the route is from Paradise at 5420 ft.

I picked up our permit on a sweltering Thursday evening. The air was thick with smoke from the wildfires torching British Columbia and the mountain was just barely visible through the haze. I hoped that we would be well above the smoke layer on the climb. I did a combination of wandering around Paradise, reading and attempting to sleep while I waited for Damien to drive in from Seattle. Five hours later after totally missing each other several times in the parking lot, Damien and I finally reunited. Leaving Damien’s car at Paradise, we piled our gear into my SUV and drove to the Comet Falls TH hoping to get an acceptable amount of sleep before venturing out for the approach.

At 2:30am we swung our heavy packs onto our backs and followed the beam of our headlamps down up the Comet Falls Trail. Our alpine start reasons were triple fold: we had to gain 5800 feet, we wanted to arrive at camp early so we could nap all afternoon and once the sun came up it was supposed be another day of unbearable heat. The trail gained relatively slowly until arriving at Comet Falls. The falls seemed to glow in the moonlight and we paused to admire them before continuing up the now steep switchbacks to Van Trump Park.

The soft early morning light illuminated glorious wildflower meadows of Van Trump Park as we broke out of the trees and entered the alpine zone. Behind us the Tatoosh Range looked like a pastel drawing, softly cloaked in a haze of smoke far below. Ahead of. us looking rather intimidating, was Mount Rainier unobstructed with smoke and radiating with its pure immensity. We could see Camp Hazard and the upper ice wall from our vantage point… everything looked so far away! We followed the trail through the sprawling meadow venturing passed the sign reading “end of maintained trail”. The trail never felt unmaintained, however, until we reached a rocky ridge. Damien chose to scramble through the talus while I opted to stay on the snow just beside the rocks. To my delight, my trail runners seemed to have great traction! We continued up the steep terrain for several hundred feet until the rocks ended and a vast snowfield laid in front of us. It was an easy grade at first, but then in reared up sharply.  The full strength of the sun’s rays was beginning to bare down on us as we begrudgingly began the final 1000 foot ascent in the scorching heat and softening softening snow.

We reached the Castle at 11am. The Castle is the lowest section of Turtle Snowfield at 9400 feet. However, it’s has running water and nice built up bivy/tent sites on the rock island. There was a single tent that had been collapsed in one of these sites. There was also a team of three at the end of the Island getting ready to ascend to Camp Hazard at 11,600 feet. We read in our beta that Camp Hazard is aptly named and not suggested as a camp. It is right beneath the Kautz Ice Cliff and it’s not unheard of for chunks of ice to comes hurling through camp.

We set up our modest camp overlooking the Muir Snowfield, Camp Muir, The Nisqually Glacier and Tatoosh Range. We had an ultra-light tarp at 8oz, summer sleeping bags and z-pads. The rest of the afternoon was spent attempting to escape the sun very unsuccessfully while we napped. We had dinner in the early evening wondering when the climbers would return to their tent. They showed up at 6:30 exhausted from the Kautz and the tedious descent of the ice walls. The packed up and moved their camp further down. The sun finally dipped below the horizon and the cool evening air we’d been waiting for finally arrived. Time to catch a few short hours of quality sleep before our next alpine start!

It seemed like I had only been asleep for 15 minutes when my alarm jolted me awake at 11:30pm. Damien and I broke down camp and began stuffing our packs for the carryover. Of course, Damien boiled some water for coffee as well. By 12:30am we began our very long walk uphill using only the moon as a source of light; tt was so bright we didn’t need to switch on our headlamps. The frozen snow softly crunched beneath our crampons as we journeyed up Turtle Snowfield. Other than that, it was silent and pristine. The slope grew steeper as we continued up and we switched from poles to ice axes. The sun cups made the ascent seem like walking up steep stairs at times and with my short, little legs this grew tiresome. Still we plodded on.

At 11,300 feet, we reached Camp Hazard. There is running water here as well and some rock bivy sites. Of course, hanging directly above was the Kautz Icecliff looking very precarious. At the edge of the camp we tied into our 37-meter rope. From here we descended 300 feet down the other side of Camp Hazard through a precarious ice fall zone, moving quickly to mitigate the danger. I have heard of folks rapping from Camp Hazard into this icefall chute, but it was a very easy downclimbed. Finally, we were out of the danger zone and at the base of the first ice wall. The wall at this point in the season was still all snow, but it was frozen solid in the darkness. It featured very large sun-cups and, at the sharp grade, it resembled a massive wall of very steep and tall steps. Damien led up. The features were interesting through I was forced to clamber up some of the steps with my knees since they were so tall! It felt like a stair master 10 Billion! No protection was placed as we simual-climbed since the snow wouldn’t effectively take screws and it was too solid to bang in a picket. I’m not sure we would have placed anything even if we could. There were some narrow crevasses easily seen and stepped over.

The grade eased and, as the run rose, we crossed more sun-cup terrain to the second ice wall. This wall appears more daunting and large at a distance that it truly is once you get up close. There is a narrow line of grey ice right through the center. Damien did not wait for a belay and began climbing up the W2/3 alpine ice. He placed 3 screws before building an anchor with our final 2. This belay would not have been necessary if we had some additional screws (we had 5 total), but its worth the extra weight. As I ascended the grey ice I was struck by how poorly the picks of my sumtecs were sticking. It was horrific! Luckily, I was wearing mono-point crampons and they seemed to be sticking well. Thus, I climbed relying very heavily on feet. Lots of dinner plating action too! Damien also was having issues with his picks, although his swings are stronger and thus he could make it work better. Therefore, we decided that he would lead the second section. When the rope grew tight I removed the anchor and continued up following Damien to the top of the ice wall and into the most impressive world of penitents I have ever seen.

Penitents, or spires of glacial snow, that can range in size from a foot high to over your head engulfed us above the grey ice.  They were big, mostly around shoulder height. We wove our way through the formations doing our best to keep the rope from getting snagged. Nestled within these spires were, of course, crevasses. There was no trail. There was nothing to show us the way. This was true mountaineering and it was the first time we had to rely 100% on ourselves to problem solve. And there were a lot of navigation problems! The crevasses were long and sweeping. Sometimes we could step or jump over. More often we had to traverse the edges and find a way around them which took time. The penitents seemed to form fences around the crevasses though creating a nifty border as we walked along the edges. During our route-finding extravaganza, we switched leads due to all the wandering.

Finally, I found myself on the edge of the most massive crevasse I have ever encountered. At first it looked like I could go around it to the left, but it soon became clear that the penitents concealed part of the crevasse and it stretched out clear across the glacier. We turned and went the other way walking toward the rock formation called Wapowety Cleaver. We had to follow the cleaver to its terminus anyway at the Nisqually Glacier. Hopefully, near the rock we could cross the monstrous crevasse.

Somewhere along the line we switched leads again and made a, to our displeasure, descending traverse along the edge in search of passage. After dropping about 200 feet we saw that the crevasse curved just before it reached the rock so we had no direct access to the cleaver. However, there seemed to be a bridge/cave in, that we could cross. Carefully, we picked our way across the bridge and made it to the other side.

We continued upward on the glacier alongside the cleaver. As we ascended the penitents grew shorter before finally morphing into sun-cups. Near the top of the cleaver we stepped onto the rock to avoid a crevasse. Once back on the snow we continued to the end of the Wapowety and discovered some bivys in the rock at 13,100~ feet.  We took this opportunity to take a long break. The terrain ahead looked easier, but now we would start to feel the effects of altitude. Damien and I looked up again from the rocks and marveled at how far the summit still seemed to be! Far below us we could see the faint images of distant mountain ssubmerged in a thick, grey sheet of smoke. We were high above the smog, but breathing would still be difficult.

Rehydrated and fed, we stood and pondered the obstacle blocking us from entry onto the upper Nisqually. We were faced with another enormous crevasse stemming out of impressive, towering seracs on our left. We would need to move quickly through here, but how should be cross the crevasse? Damien walked along the edge (again going down) and stumbled upon a bridge. It was not a walk across bridge though. It was a taller, knife-edge bridge. To cross we would need to do an exposed ice climbing style traverse along the side of the bridge over hundreds of feet of air.  With no way to place and anchor I prepared to arrest if the bridge collapsed as Damien began to cross. He placed a picket midway through. Once the ice axe traverse eased into a normal bridge for the last 3-4 feet he crawled to spread his weight as things looked thin. Then it was my turn. It was overwhelmingly thrilling to me on that bridge aa look down into the blue abyss that is a bottomless crevasse. I was clinging on a snow bridge in the middle of a sea of nothing. The crossing was not hard, just exceedingly airy. I did not crawl the final section, I leaped instead.

The ice climbing bridge marked the end of spicy crevasse crossings. From there we continued upward on a very long walk aiming for the tiny bit of rock high above marking the edge of the crater. At altitude, each step became increasing taxing and my body began to panic in its struggle for oxygen. I recognized this symptom for 3 years ago on Rainier and knew it was normal. I sat down a let a few tears flow. When I can’t breathe my body reacts by crying sometimes. It’s very strange, but after a few minutes I feel somewhat relieved and can continue up the endless snow and ice. None of this is from fear, emotion or pain. I guess it’s by body’s way of releasing the physical stress. No idea. I always feel like  nothing had even happened when I get up.

We came across crevasses. These were easy to step over or go around. There was one that required crossing a bridge/collapsed ice, but it wasn’t sketch. Damien did opt to crawl the last few thin feet again. I ran.

It seemed like an eternity, but we finally crested the dusty, rocky crater rim at 3:30 pm. Breathing heavy we set our packs down and eagerly got off our feet. A member of the Glacier Cave Explorers came over to greet us. The explorers are a group of scientists who are studying glacial caves on Mt Rainier and other volcanos. They had a basecamp in the summit crater. He chatted with us about Kautz and pointed to where we could find the descent route down the DC. Descending… that did not sound appealing.

We still needed to visit Columbia Crest, the true summit along the rim, but our conversation kept turning to something else… should be just camp on the rim? We were tired and the thought of going down to Camp Muir did not sound all too great, especially in the heat of the day. This was an amazing opportunity. There was little wind, descent temps, there would be a full moon and we had overnight gear. The only trouble might be the altitude headaches we had gotten in the past after spending too much time above 13k. However, after 45 minutes we only  light headaches at best. The decision was made: we would camp on the summit.

We began to follow the Crater Rim looking for a protected area. As it turns out we stumbled upon the entrance to one of the glacial caves. The entrance was protected by snow walls and had a gravel floor. From the mouth of the cave steam released in plumes, but there were no fumes to alarm us. Perfect. We went to work setting up our tarp and melting snow for water. Some scientists came over to make sure we weren’t causing trouble with the cave. They told us there was a giant lake under the ice and assured us that the steam was not poisonous. We took some vitamin I and laid our weary bodies down for an hour before rising to make dinner. Then we swiftly fell back asleep setting our alarm for 7:30 so we could head off Columbia Crest to watch the sunset.

Seeing the sunrise on the summit of Rainier is a common experience for many climbers of the volcano. However, not many people have the chance to experience a Columbia Crest Sunset. We followed the rim which was mostly rock and dust as the light began to dim. It was about a half mile walk from our camp. From the snowy, penitent decorated hump that is Columbia Crest we stood in the same place where Damien proposed to me just over a year ago. The shadow of the massive mountain made a dark silhouette in the smoky horizon and a bright moon glowed just above distant Mt Adams poking out of the grey haze. Just behind Point Success the sun began to sink painting the sky with pastel hues of blue, pink and purple. The glaciers reflected pink and yellow and the wind was just a whisper on the largest volcano in Washington. We stood entranced watching the sun dip below the horizon and melting away into the smoke in brilliant display of fiery yellows and orange. We were alone of the summit fully enveloped in the supremacy of the mountain. It was an honor and a privilege to view that sunset and experience the mountain in way few others do.

Feeling serene, Damien and I continued along the rim passing some steaming ground. When we touched the earth, it radiated with searing heat, evidence that this volcano is very much alive. We signed the summit register and descended into the trench, or trail through the center of the crater. Here the penitents were above my head, though they grew shorter as we journeyed to the other side toward our camp. In the fluorescent moonlight, we huddled into our 30 degree sleeping bags and fell almost instantly into a deep sleep.

The alarm rang signaling our third alpine start at 12:30am. Under the starry sky we broke down camp and began the process of packing our bags one final time. Ahead of us laid the grueling descent of Disappointment Cleaver Route. Normally, elevation loss clocks out at 8991 feet. However, this year the DC was not following its normal route on the mountain. Due to some breakups on the glacier, the DC route strays from its normal track. At the top of Disappointment Cleaver, the path descends 600 feet before regaining the lost elevation and making some sweeping traverse switchbacks to join up with the Emmons Route. This meant our elevation loss would be 9591 ft. and we would have to go up 600 feet too! The distance to Camp Muir at 10,188 feet is currently 3.8 miles.

Damien and I crossed the crater and roped up at the edge of the glacier. As per our usual routine, I led down the mountain. A deep trail was cut into the towering penitents as we journeyed down in a silent, windless night. After Kautz, the DC/Emmons felt like a simple hiking trail that happened to be very steep. About 200 feet down we encountered a hand line which assisted in descending a steep section and crossing a hanging crevasse. It was strange to suddenly have help! At 13,800 feet, we reached the junction where Emmons and DC spit. We turned right following the flagging that conveniently read “Camp Muir”. However, rangers have reported climbers ending up at camp Sherman by accident! That was not a mistake we wanted to make!

We encountered the first team heading up at 13000 feet. They were well ahead of the hoards and part of the cave expedition. About 20 minutes layer we began to run into the rest of the teams heading up. Some of the guided groups were easily 20 people large. We stepped aside and let them pass us. The private teams seemed to all be in one cluster. They all offered to let us pass, eager for an excuse to catch their breathe. As suddenly as all the headlamps had appeared, they all vanished behind us. Now we stood at the base of the 600 foot ascent to the top of Disappointment Cleaver. I made quick work of the first few hundred feet, but then I abruptly hit a wall. I could feel my body protesting upward motion. My stomach suddenly felt tight and it churned aggressively, begging me for food (I was nearly out). My muscles did not want to take another step. I gritted my teeth and trudged on, though my pace slowed considerably.

We crossed a single ladder over a crevasse, but the clever never did get any closer. My feet felt heavy. The walk seemed infinite. I needed to eat, but I wanted to get to the rock. After and eternity, we arrived at the top of the cleaver. Normally the rock section is not far away, but this year the trail stayed on the snow until only 700 feet above Ingraham. This was great because the volcano crud is horrible to descend, bad because that meant my break was further away.

Finally, we stepped on volcanic rock. I collapsed and summoned the energy to dig out my food and water. I almost immediately felt rejuvenated. We admired the now illuminated world of ice reflecting tones of pink, orange and yellow as the rays from the sun finally touched the glacier. Rainier is truly enchanted no matter where you are on the mountain. Smoke still lingered below, but it was thinner than the days before. Little Tacoma stood just off to our left looking very small in the shadow of Rainier.

Refreshed we stood and continued the thankfully short descent of the cleaver and back onto the glacier ice. It was a quick saunter to Ingraham Flats Camp where there were surprisingly few tents. Back on volcanic crud we descended Cathedral Gap to Cowlitz Glacier. Camp Muir laid not to far off on the opposite side the glacial expanse. I hurried toward it stepping over a few tame crevasses.

Camp Muir was quiet this early in the morning as most dayhikers don’t make it up until afternoon. We dropped our packs on the gravel and began the tedious process of un-roping and packing up our technical climbing gear. Some climbers planning on making the ascent the following night came over confused as to how we had gotten down so early. Easy: we summited yesterday afternoon! We lingered at Muir and took a quick nap to rest our knees for the second half of the descent. At 9:30 we were walking again.

We did a combination of glissades and walking down the snowfield to Pebble Creek. Unfortunately, the snow was softening fast, so I couldn’t glissade as much as I would have liked. At Pebble Creek, we switched our mountaineering boots for trail runners and entered the world of visitors wearing jeans and other forms of cotton. It’s always strange returning to civilization after an intense climb.

Damien paused just after we passed the last switchback to Panorama Point. He gestured to the guided group sitting just off the trail behind us listening to their leader describe the history of the mountain. “That’s Melissa Arnot!”

We pressed on, each step jolting our bodies a little be more. The trail turned to pavement and we learned very quickly that trail runners are only good in the dirt. They stick to pavement and shock the body with impact. This was the most painful part of the entire descent. Even worse that the 600 feet up! It wasn’t a long stretch though and we finally emerged out of the meadows and into the Paradise Parking lot 2.5 hours after departing Camp Muir. At that point, I had one thing on my mind: lunch!
It hard to accurately describe the experience of Euphoria after climbing Kautz. It was the ultimate type 2 fun adventure and the most difficult glacier climb I have done. On the climb up I could not understand why I had wanted to attempt such a committing, endless and technical route. Right after I finished lunch at Paradise Inn I felt like I couldn’t get back into the mountains fast enough to do it all again! Amazing climbs have an odd way of playing tricks on your memory. The pain all seems to melt away and you’re just left recalling how freaking awesome it all was. Maybe it is the intensity one feels on a committing, high altitude climbs that that I find so addicting. The senses become heightened to an extreme extent and everything is felt more acutely. It’s like seeing everything in laser focus. Each crystal of snow, each crack in the ice, each (aching) muscle in my body… everything is experienced with such passion and strength.  Maybe that is why I seem to be drawn to peaks over 13k. I long for the intensity and focus these mountains bring to my life.