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.

The technique Damien and I are refining this year is the fine art of the “carryover”. We have several projects coming up that will involve this technique (weather gods willing). Our mission on this trip was begin the process of refining this strategy. We climbed Shasta at 14,168 feet last May using the Standard Avalanche Gulch Route. Luckily we caught the route just before the Memorial Day masses and avoided crowds. This year our goal was the ascend the much more technical Casaval Ridge and then descend via Avalanche Gulch. Since we would not return to the ridge, this would necessitate carrying all 45lbs of our gear over the top of the mountain. This is not a requirement for climbing Casaval, but it is what we wanted to accomplish.

Luckily, we did not have to park a mile down the road like folks that would arrive later on Saturday would have to do at the Bunny Flat TH. We ended up pulling in from the long, 580 mile drive at 3am. I took a minute to grab our permits and pay of $25 fee per person. Then we drifted off to a deep sleep in our car until about 7am. We were on the well packed down trail at 8am along with a ton of other folks, most heading the Helen Lake camp for the Avalanche Gulch Route.

We broke away from the well packed trail at about 7500 feet and headed left into the trees and heading in the general direction of Casaval Ridge which is a rather obvious, gnarly looking ridge on the left. We paused by Horse Camp, which is owned my the Sierra Club. The hut was almost completely buried in snow and the well was several meters down. Last year the hut was melted out! We pressed on half following tracks and half making own own trail through the trees traversing up until we finally reached the tow of Casaval Ridge. From here the general idea is to simply head upward. We managed to join up with a good bootpack at about 8500 feet. The flat area above by the first set of gendarmes seems very close, but it is about 1500feet from the bottom of the toe. Upon finally reaching this flat area with a few short towers and melted out rock bivy sites (9500 ft) we were greeted with a marvelous view of the next slope we had to ascend. We found that in general that each steep section of Casaval was followed by a short flattish section. We again head upward and gained the ridge proper. The ridge is wide and flat here and is called Giddy Giddy Gulch. At 9800 feet is is where most folks camp for Casaval. We continued up the next steep slope to high camp which is known to be windy, hence it unpopularity.

Once reaching high camp on the flat bench at 10300 feet we gratefully dropped out packs. We dug a bivvy spot near the crest of the ridge, but offset to avoid the big cornice. From camp we had a great view of the first crux of the route at 10,400 feet. A traverse just beneath Gothic looking, volcanic pinnacles on an exposed 50-60 degree slope. We studied the route the best we could from our vantage point (it was a pretty great view of the ridge actually) and made some mental notes. The wind did pick up a bit as evening camp we were cozy and wind free in our deep bivvy hole and windbreak. Two teams passed through, but both decided turn back and camp lower, so we had the bench to ourselves.

We packed up camp the following morning in the cover or darkness and set out by headlamp to tackle the first crux. There were several teams on the route, but we were all spaced out and the route accepts multiple teams well. Besides, the 10-15ish teams on Casaval did not compare to the masses heading up Avalanche Gulch. Their headlamps looked like an LA freeway! The first crux traverse was indeed very airy and a fall would be serious. Although we had our harnesses on we did not feel the need to rope up just yet. As it turned out the rope, harnesses, carabiners and 4 pickets we had brought along ended up being training weight. We never used them. Comfort with exposure is hard to determine in beta. After this lengthy crux we found ourselves ascending  broad slope which had some rocks and provided a nice rest area to enjoy the view and now blue sky. The next crux was ascending a very long and ever steepening slope. The final section was easily 50 degrees. We then passed through a notch in a rock band where there was small flat area before the slope reared up again to 60 degrees. There were 3 guided clients here waiting to be belayed up by their guides above. The guides shouted down that we could go ahead of the clients and climb beside the rope. I pressed ahead climbing the slope on the right on the edge of the rock band. Damien decided to climb behind the clients. It a good thing he did because one client popped a crampon. Damien was kind enough to spend a fair amount of time fixing the gear which the guides were very grateful for. We continued up the slightly less steep slope over some exposed rocks to the base of the catwalk, marked by a slightly overhung rock wall on the crest of the ridge. Reports where the with the collapsed pinnacle on the second part of this already spicy section, things were rather sporty and this variation was not recommended. Carrying 45lbs packs did not make something sporty feel very appeasing so we opted to take the bypass route. We headed left of the headway and pinnacles and onto the slopes of the West Face.

This slope is steep, endless and completely in the sun. It was my least favorite section. We knew that the top if West Face/Casaval deposited the climbing on the west side of Misery Hill. We did not know if it was the lower or upper part of the hill… I cannot tell you how much we wanted it to be the upper section. But of course when we crested the top and reached the upper mountain we were greeted with a view of Misery Hill about .25 miles away and we were very much going to climb from the base.

We trudged to the base of Misery Hill aptly named since it is the final miserable and endless steep hill one has to climb to each the crater. We plodded upward though the hill wasn’t as bad as I remembered from last year. Once at the top we crossed the nearly flat crater and deposited out packs at 3900 feet with everyone else’s at the base of the final ascent. There is a good ramp leading up to the summit ridge and finally the summit throne. In fact the final ascent is ridiculously easy and short. We did it! We carried all our stuff up the mountain and not, as we hoisted our packs once again, it was time to haul them down the other side. We descended the Red Banks on Avalanche Guch and gratefully plopped down in the glissade track and took off on a giant slide down to 10600 feet. Unfortunately, many inexperienced folks climb Shasta. A climbing ranger even commented to Damien how surprised he was to see someone holding their ice axe correctly. About halfway down the four glissade tracks there was a traffic jam. Folks were either sitting in the track and taking a liasurely break or moving at about a quarter mile per hour. A requested a person sitting in my track to please move to the side if he was resting. He slide forward several yards and stopped again to rest. I again requested him to move to the side. He did the same thing. After the third time this happened I gave up and made my own track weaving in and down of the resters and slow movers until I was ahead and had a clear path to Helen Lake. Ugh, it can be frustrating sometimes descending a standard route. Last year we ran into folks who had never even used an ice axe and though just carrying it along meant they were good to go.

The snow became too soft to glissade soon after passing Helen Lake. We descended on the left side of the lake because we saw a glissade track there. But once we had to walk again we wondered how to rejoin the main route which had been on the right of the lake. Exhausted we stopped for a break and to melt some snow for water. Then we decided to cross over to the right and find a camp. We ended up finding a nice, secluded bivvy on a hill just above the main route up/down. We settled in for the night wondering how achy we’d be the next morning.

To our great surprise Damien and I didn’t feel the tiniest hint of aches and pains the next day. In fact we felt energetic and limber. The snow did not freeze overnight even at our 9000 foot camp so we did not need crampons to descend and the snow was very forgiving on our knees. Hard pack ice/snow descends always cause my joints to protest. We made it back to Bunny Flat in less than 2 hours. Carryover success!

This ended up being a Plan C trip. Originally we were going to go for Garibaldi, but solar radiation boosted avy danger to considerable on the aspect we planned to climb. So we opted for Reid Headwall on Mt Hood. Avalanche danger was predicted to be moderate and we were excited to get in a technical alpine ice climb after avalanche danger pushed us off so many summit attempts this year. At least avalanche danger was moderate right up until we pulled into the Timberline Parking lot Friday night. We checked the forecast one last time and it had been updated to considerable an hour beforehand. We had our normal discussion and it was decided that Reid Headwall would be fine if we finished the route before any major radiation from the sun hit. However, the climb is more or less a maze through towers of rim ice and route-finding delay was not entirely impossible which could leave us exposed to falling ice once the sun warmed things up. Since we had already driven the 5 hours we settled on the South Spur/Hogsback route. This is the easiest route up Mount Hood and it attracts throngs of people, most of which are inexperienced and minimal climbing knowledge to the point of endangering themselves and others around them. It is normally a conga line of folks trying to get through the bottleneck of the crux of the pearly gates to the summit. However, it seemed like the only safe option and if we were stragicgic we could avoid the circus. Besides, although not the technical Ice climb we were hoping for, it was a climb nonetheless. Plus it meant a higher camp and we really needed to start acclimating for the season.

After spending a chilly night in the car parked in the Timberline parking lot (5800 ft) we began the long approach. Luckily, this was not as arduous for us since we had our skis and skinned up. The route begin as the ski resort and follows the right most cat track up open slopes. Don’t follow the groomers near the lifts unless you want to be stopped by ski a patrol. You’ll know you’re on the right path because the catt4rack is filled up bootprints and usually some semblance of a skin track. The first 1200ft of gain brings you parallel to the Silcox Hut. From here the slope gets a bit steeper until the cat track finally terminates at the top of the highest chair lift (8600 ft). From here there are normally multiples boot paths and a skin track to follow to the crater. The general idea is to stay to the right of Crater Rock and Left of Steel Cliffs aiming for the flat basin area. There is a flattish area at about 9200 feet where most folks camp even though the crater is flatter. However, the crater is a thermal area with fumroles and other aroma releasing formations. However, Damien and I passed this lower camp opting for the less crowded high camp since the smell of sulfur isn’t as issue for us. The final ascent to the crater is pretty steep and at times our skins didn’t catch completely. However, we were pretty overjoyed that with elevation came a breeze. Lower we had been baking in the blazing sun!

We set up camp well away from Devil’s Kitchen thermals in the crater at 10,100 feet. Mt Hood is known for high winds even when it isn’t in the forecast. Therefore, we dug a good sized hole to set up our tent along with a substantial windbreak. From there we had front row seats watching the conga line climb up the Hogsback to the Pearly Gates. We wanted no part of this steady line of people and the hazards of climbing in the throngs. Therefore, our plan was to climb in the dark and reach the summit exactly at sunrise. Hopefully, we would be the first to summit and avoid the bottleneck in the Pearly Gates.

We spent the rest of the day people watching. In the evening the clouds built and we couldn’t see the mountains below. The higher elevation was clear though and we had the rare experience of people the the only people on the upper flanks of the South Side. Not a soul on the Hogsback Route. It was quiet with only the sound of the wind and the pristine evening light. Solitude in a place where you can rarely be alone.

We were moving at 4:20am carrying our skis for the descent. A team of three were coming up from the bottom of the mountain as we walked to the nearby Hogsback, but they stopped to rest in the Crater so we climbed alone. The Hogsback is a spine of windblown snow creating a ridge of sorts from Crater Rock.  The well beat down path traverses the side of the tall spine until reaching the crest where there is a flattish area before the Hogsback rears up rather steeply to the Pearly Gates and towers of rime ice. I found myself front pointing parts of this section using both ice tools.

There was a small flat area stamped put at the base of the Pearly Gates, probably the result of people waiting in line. But in the darkness there was no waiting. The Pearly Gates is a short, steep and narrow chute big enough for climbers of only move in single file up ~60 degree slope. It is borders on either side by high rock towers covered in rim ice making them look like mystical castles. This is the area is possesses a rock and ice-fall hazard making it imperative to move quickly and preferably only in the early morning hours before things warm up. I front pointed and used both tool picks through the Pearly Gates.

After the chute it is basically a long gradual climb to horizon which never seems to get closer. It look to be just a few yards away, but really you need to ascend about another 250 feet. Eventually, we did indeed crest over the South Side and stand on the summit just in time to admire the fiery colors of sunrise. The wind was wicked and gusting at probably 30 mph, but we put on our down parkas and stayed plenty warm enjoying the perfect moment of solitude. We were the first to summit that day. We watch the sky go from bright pink to fluorescence orange as the sun finally peaked over the horizon and bathed the mountain snow soft corral glow. The perfect morning and we didn’t want to leave, but we had seen the headlamp coming up the mountain when we left camp we didn’t want to get stuck in the throngs. We passed the team of three as we descended to the Pearly Gates and front pointed down the chute. Only one climber was at the base of the gates politely waiting for us to descend. However, the Hogsback was getting crowded. We had timed things perfectly.

We down-climbed to the flat area of the Hogsback and from there skied back to camp. The Summit was looking pretty cloudy and once again we were pleased at our luck. We went back to sleep or tried to. The winds picked up and whistled around the tent waking us up. When we finally started to pack up the winds were worst in the Crater than they had been on the summit. Another bit of good fortune as I imagine summit winds were 40+ at that point.

We snapped back into our skis for the long run down. This is when I really appreciate being able to ski. The slog down the mountain on foot is excruciating, but on skis the descent of 4300ft from the crater is a highlight!

Perfect weather window so why not go on a conditioner to the summit of Mt Rainier? I say conditioner because, well, attempting Rainier was to condition for the high altitude of climbing in the Teton Range in two weeks. So basically Rainier was training this time around, but we also really wanted to not just summit the crater rim this time, but to also get to the very tippy top “Columbia Crest”.

There was computer glitch in the reservation system for Mt Rainier National Park this year so all permits were walk up. At the last second Damien decided that instead of taking a 1/2 day off from work he would take a full day. He wanted to camp outside the Wilderness Office to make sure we had the best chance for getting a permit (and hopefully he would be able to get one without the entire climbing party being present). I would be available to drive over early afternoon just in case there was any issue the rangers issuing a permit to just one party member.  Damien’s Black Friday Technique of sitting outside the office in his camp chair  with his Ipad at 5am and waiting for them to open at 7:00am worked. He secured a permit for Ingraham Flats! I drove out after work to meet him and sleep! We would start our day before the next day technically began. At 10:30pm!

By 11pm we had our packs shouldered and we were walking up the pavement from Paradise. After some star gazers yelled at us for messing up their night vision with our headlamps as we were trying to locate the trail we finally moved away from civilization and onto the dark slopes of Mount Rainier. We like to approach Rainier in the night for two reason. We like to avoid the powerful sun rays that bake the trail and snow slopes to Camp Muir by traveling after sundown. The other reason is so we can arrive to basecamp in the morning and spend the rest of the day sleeping in preparation for an extreme alpine start. We moved surprising well through the night. Normally sleep deprivation gets to me on these star-lite approaches, but for some reason it wasn’t as difficult and although my pack weight upward of 50lbs I didn’t seem to notice that either. I guess training was paying off.

The thr sky was painted with pastel colors as the  sun began to rise. We were at 9000ft by then and looking at Camp Muir ahead which never seemed to go closer no matter how much we walked. It always seems to be just right there, but it never is until you’re 100ft away! We did eventually climb up the steps to the alpine basecamp at around 7:00am. Damien immediately settled down for a nap. We han’t stopped much during the climb up. I was pretty hyper so I talked to a RMI client for a bit. Our journey for the day was not yet over though. We still had about another 1000ft to climb.

After Damien woke up we roped up and began to cross the Colwitz Glacier to Cathedral Rock. The crossing was well maintained with an obvious beating trail as usual thanks to the hard work of the guides. There was one step/jump over crevasse, but nothing more exciting than that. The snow level was up pretty high, but the rocky scamper to the top of Cathedral Rock Ridge was still rather tiring and unpleasant. I’m not the biggest fan of scrambling over loose volcano crud in crampons. I don’t think it was more than 600ft though. From the top of the ridge we continued to climb across the Ingraham Glacier. We passed areas were the glacier was broken up pretty good, but one had to step over a few thin cracks until we reached Ingraham Flats: a flat sheet of ice with no crevasses and our basecamp.

It wasn’t very crowded and we found a nice pre-dug platform secluded off to the side and away from the other private climbers and guided teams. We spent some time melting water and eating oatmeal before putting up our tent. By the time we were all done it was about 10:30am. Clearly that is bedtime! The rest of the day was spent napping, filtering water, enjoying the view and snacking. We needed to be ready for our alpine start… and when the alarm rang at 9:45pm we were ready.

We were the first team to leave camp at 10:45pm. We crossed  glacier though some broken up ice and seracs toward the Disappointment Clever. There was only one short ladder more than 3 ft across that had just been set earlier that night. In fact a whole long of route work had been done by the guides earlier and we were the first ones on the freshly shoveled revised route up. The claim was that the DC route was in the best shape its ever been in history, I think the statement is correct. We followed the tread until reaching the base of the Cleaver. We stepped onto the loose volcanic rock and unroped making it easier to scramble up the rockfall hazard of a feature. The trail up is well marked with flagging this year and pretty easy to follow, but its still not fun to climb. Luckily the route doesn’t stay on the spine of the cleaver, but goes off to the side and follows snow up for the final 300 or so feet. That was a nice surprise.

Roped up again we continued to follow the track. Unlike last year when the route traverse seeral miles to the left before going back right to gain the crater rim, this years route pretty much straight up. A good path was cut into the glacier and it zigged zagged directly up and over several huge and very steep slopes. There were 3 different places were clips were available in the snow for a running belay due to the steep grade, but I;m not sure they wee really needed. We were trailed for a bit by a soloist, but we let him pass us. Still no other teams caught up to us. We could see them below though, huge conga lines of guided teams. We took a quick break at 13,000ft, but other than that we pretty much kept moving. Even when we finally crested the Crater Rim  we didn’t pause. Damien  walked straight across the crater. Last year we had stopped climbing at the rim which is considered a summit, but not the technical high point. We had severe altitude fatigue due to breathing in cooking stove fumes in the Muir Hut (no one went outside due to the 80mph winds last year) and the smoky air for the forest fires. This year both of us felt great and getting to Columbia Crest (the true summit) was a big goal for us.

We reached the base of the final climb before sunrise, but a small glint of pink was on the horizon. We unroped and made the final climb over the pumice to the true summit with 3 soloists. We were the first team to summit that morning at about 5:00am! It was windy, about 30mph, but no unbearably so. The expansive crater was just beginning to get illuminated in the blue dawn light and the lights of Seattle twinkled in the distance. We were on top of Washington on the most perfect morning! And then Damien looked at me with an intensity I had never witnessed before. And, well, I knew immediately what was about to happen. There on the mountain that more than any other mountain in WA is a symbol of determination, fortitude, perseverance and shear beauty he proposed. I cannot imagine a more perfect moment in the mountains…and of course I said yes. well what I said was “Damien I would love to marry you” to which he clarified “so is that a yes?”

Newly engaged we retreated from the windy summit to the shelter of the large rocks near the summit register about 40ft below where the soloist we hanging out. The ground was actually warm there from the thermal activity. Columbia Crest is full of smoking fumeroles, but it surprisingly did not smell of sulfur. Huddled together we all watched as the colors of the sky grew more vivid and finally the sun peaked out over the horizon and illuminated the frozen glacial world around us.  We had arrived to the crest at the perfect time.

We stayed until the guided groups arrived and things began to get crowded. Then we roped back up, crossed the crater and began the descent. It a bit annoying trying to pass all the teams going up, but luckily I was so enamored with the view and being engaged that I didn’t bother me much. Last year we hadn’t been able to see much due to all the forest fire smoke. But this time were were able to see far and wide  as far as Jefferson in Oregon! And Little Tacoma which is as big as Mt Hood looked so tiny below us! We were back at camp at about 10:30am. Most folks descend back to Paradise the same day as their climb, but we preferred to stay on the mountain and had a permit for an extra night. We spent the rest of the day visiting with some other climbers, making up for lost calories and napping. The winds had picked up so we secured the tent more our pickets. It held up well, but it always does. No noise and not flapping from the BD Eldorado!

High winds battered the camp throughout the night. Probably 40mph gusts. Teams still began to depart camp at around 11pm. We woke up to watch their headlamp light ascending the Clever. Its always a beautiful sight. It was cold the next morning when we woke up to watch the sunrise. Another display of beautiful colors. We were reluctant to leave, but after some hesitation and procrastination we packed up camp headed back down to Paradise.

The descent was much nicer than last year. We didn’t enter a cloud of smoke this time around and were weren’t totally exhausted. In fact we both felt rather energetic! As it turned out, Mt Rainier was the easiest mountain  we’ve climbed this year. I guess we’re doing something right with our training!

 

 

After plans for The North Ridge of Baker fell through due to some unstable and possibly hazardous weather in the northern cascades, Damien and I decided to go south. Saturday called for some precip, but Sunday called for 100% sunny skies. On our agenda was Mt Adams via Mazama Glacier (with the Mazama Headwall Variation if we could figure it out). Adams was the last summit Damien needed to complete summits of the WA Cascade Volcanoes. And I wanted to return to the route since the last time I climbed it a crevasse forced us to move to the Lunch Counter and finish the climb on the South Spur.

It’s a very long 6 hour drive to Cold Springs TH which is also the start of The South Spur Route up Adams. A very late season snow of several inches had fallen the night making it feel more like October with green grass peeking through the white powder. We got on the trail at 11am, rather late for us. The going was easy at first as we simply followed the well traveled South Spur Route for 1.3 miles. At the Junction with Round Mountain Trail we turned right and began to make our way through the forest trying as best we could to find the trail hidden beneath both old and fresh snow. We strayed a few times, but found our way back to the track with the help of our GPS. The route finding did seem to eat up time though. Finally we crossed in the Yakima Indian Reservation. We turned off the trail and traveled cross country to our left a few yards away from the border through an opening in the forest revealing the distant moraines. This was a shortcut, as normally the route to high camp follows Round the Mountain Trail for another mile before cutting off toward the moraines. With the ground covered in snow it was very easy for us to travel diagonally to cut off some mileage.

Sunrise camp in described as a pass in notch in the moraines and there is very little detail as to where this pass is within the moraines. We identified a snow slope on the headwall of the moraines and decided to venture upward. As it turned out we chose the moraine that had a cairn on the top indicated me with on route for Sunrise Camp. However, now we had a new issue to contend with. The partly sunny skies that had graced us all day suddenly changed. Thick, low white clouds rolled in and a hail/snow fell fro, the sky. With reduced visibility we were 100% relying on a map, compass and GPS to find out way. Luckily, navigation is one of Damien’s strengths, and though tedious at times, he lead us directly to camp without getting turned around once! Some tent sites were melted and on black pumice while others were still under snow. We first set up our tent in the pumice, but when we discovered how messy that black gravel was, we moved it to the snow.

After lingering in the tent for 30 minutes the precipitation dissipated and the clouds parted. A world of black pumice and white ice surrounded us and Mt Hood glowed pink in the light of the setting sun. We had a full view of the Mazama Glacier in front of us in the fading light and wavering fog. From our perspective we could see crevasses on the left of the glacier and thus we decided our best bet was to stay more to the right as we ascended.

We woke up at 2:45am to brilliantly shinning stars and a shimmering moon. We almost didn’t need headlamps it was so bright. By the time we were roped up and moving up the glacier it was 3:38am. We made our way up the ice keeping an eye out for crevasses. Luckily the line we chose did not run into any crack until sunrise at the very top of the slope where Damien found himself with a huge bergshund blocking the way. We turned around and I led further right to the lip of two gaping crevasses. Wow, i am always awestruck when i have  the opportunity to look into the depths of the ice. The wind was blowing hard and snow swirled around us and bounced in and out of the crevasses. Everything glowed with hues of pink, orange and yellow in the morning light. It was simply stunning.

I probed the snow and managed to safety maneuver between the two crevasses and to the safety of a rocky moraine notch.  From here Damien took the lead again. We followed a broad gentle slope in another wall of snow, rock and ice. A tall steep wall. We cut around to the far right of the slope where the grade was slightly gentler…. but only slightly. From here we tediously ascended for what seemed like eons. We did finally make it to the top of the endless hill. From here we found ourselves a bit confused as to where the Mazama Headwall actually was as the beta on it was pretty scarce so we opted to carry on with the Mazama Standard route. We ascended diagonally left through bands of moraines until we joined up the circus that the South Spur. I was shocked at how many people brought their dogs and more surprised at how well the dogs were doing!

We climbed very slowly to the crest of Piker’s Peak, the false summit. It is always kind of a sinking feeling when you reach the top and  are greeting with the final slope looming high above you on the other side of the .5 mile plateau. But we pressed on, ominous as the final climb seemed from that distance. the final 800ft of climbing passed much more quickly that I recalled and once again I stood on top of Adams, the first volcano I ever climbed in WA and the final WA volcano on Damien’s list. No clouds obscured the view and we could see Rainier, Helens, Hood, Sister, Broken Top and Jeffereson. We hung out just below the summit block with other climbers and their canine companions. Damien fell fast asleep! Then we got to our feet and began the descent.

We found that our crampons were gathering snow and turning into High Heels. After some discussion during roping back up at the start of the glacier we decided it would be safer to descend without them since we were slipping everywhere. We descended the first steep hill using a roped glissade since no crevasses or evidences of hidden ones were visible. Then we once again crossed the broad slope and began to descend the final 1500ft. It was only now, in the daylight that we fully realized how many crevasses there were on the ice. We hadn’t seen them in the dark and the evening before the ski was dim enough and the mist present enough to hide of cracks. On the way up we had picked an almost perfect line up and bypassed them all mostly by shear luck! Now as I led down staying to the right i found myself barely planning passage around the endless indentations in the ice and probing carefully especially in the fresh snow. Damien made the mistake of taking a step in a area just on the outer edge of where i probed and his foot sunk in and didn’t stop.. he jumped back quickly confused. Then took another stop and it happened again before realizing what had happened. he had stepped in a narrow crevasse. Luckily, it ended up being funny and not troublesome and we completed the descent back to camp with incident.

After a brief break we packed up camp and began the walk back just as the heat of the day began to fade. It was rather pleasant walking across the moraines again. It was like walking through a totally different area since it was clear this time around and we were in great spirits. We were actually able to follow our footprints back to Bird Creek Meadows. From there the tracks faded in and our, but we did manage to stay more on trail than on the way in ironically and arrived back at the car at 7:30…a 15 hour day. We were exhausted, hungry, thirst and achy, but mostly we were ecstatic. How could we not be after a climb?

Now as for the 6 hour drive home… we were not so ecstatic about that!

The original plan for Memorial Day weekend was to climb Mt Olympus in 4 days. But typical Washington weather came in with the promise of both rain and possible lightning in the Olympic Range and pretty much the rest of the state. We made some last second decisions and opted to climb Mt Shasta in California instead. It is a two day climb, but we planned on staying an extra night at camp for additional acclimation and adjoined this climb with a trip to Oregon Caves National Monument as well.

Almost every route was in for Mt Shasta, but we chose to do the standard Avalanche Gulch route on the south side of the mountain. It is basically a high elevation steep snow scramble. The main event for us with the opportunity to get up above 14000ft and spend lots of time near the summit to prepare our bodies for Mt Rainier and the Tetons later this summer.

Two permits as needed for the climb and both are self-issue at the TH. The wilderness permit is free and must be carried by each permit. A summit permit must also be purchased for $25 per person (exact change needed). We started out for the Bunny Flats Trailhead at about 7:00am on Friday hoping to beat the Memorial Day Rush. There is snow almost right away, but there is a great boot/ski track to follow through the forest until you reach treeline. From here boot prints spread out, but the way to still very clear. Even without tracks the route through the drainage and up to Helen Lake would be pretty obvious. We headed across the final flat part of the treeline and then up. The trail wasn’t extremely steep and we made great time to Helen Lake at 10,400ft enjoying the surrounding mountain views the whole way up.

High Camp at the lake is watched over by a single ranger. There is green flagging which indicated the area where camping is allowed and more signage for the bathroom area just below the lake. About ten tents were lined up. We took a spot on the end as far away as we could for some solitude. We were sure it would fill in as the day went on. It was only 12pm. We set up camp and examined the parts of the route we could see up to “The Thumb”. Then basically we did a whole bunch of sleeping since we planned a very early start. Plus driving through the night 560 miles can be pretty tiring!

More folks showed up throughout the day filling in the camp. Most were very friendly and in-between naps we talked to some of the other climbers. We got taken aback when folks said they were from the Bay Area or Tahoe… we kept forgetting we were in California! We had an early dinner and turned in for the night at 6:30pm.

We began climbing the route at 2:15am. There was only a light wind, but it was still cold enough for me to wear a light puffy and long underwear under my soft-shell pants. We saw a white and red headlamp above of. We were the third team on the route. The other two climbers were soloist. We climbed pretty much straight up the snow slope leaning to the right. The grade was relatively steep and gradually increased in angle as we ascended. At about 11,500ft we passed the first soloist. He was not doing well and was ill prepared. He had poles and his axe was clipped to his side, useless. His camouflage jacket looked like it was from walmart. No crampons. Thin day-hiking boots. He was taking yet another break as we passed him. he said he was tired and it was his second time trying this mountain (and any mountain). He had started from the trailhead. We wished him luck. We later found out he tried to descend and fell 1000ft. Luckily he was uninjured. his axe remains on the mountain.

Just under 12000 ft we turned to the left and began to climb the steep wide slope to Red Banks. This is the known to be the crux and steepest part of the climb. The top of this slope is marked by a large rock outcrop called “The Thumb”. We ascended steadily and passed the climber with the red light. He looked more prepared then the other soloist, but still uneducated. At about 12600ft we camp across a line of exposed rock coming down the slope. The snow below it was wind loaded and soft. Staying to the left of the rock the sock was more like Styrofoam, so we stayed left. Most folks bear to the left near the top of Red Banks and continue up the slope to the first small plateau. However, I opted to stay right and get onto the ridge near the Thumb.

Once we reached the ridge at 12800ft we were smashed by howling winds (probably 30-40 mph) and fiercely cold temps. We found shelter in the moat near the rocks on the ridge and put on our Feather Friends Frontpoint Parkas. These are meant for Denali! We pushed (thick parkas on and not even breaking a sweat) on heading along the ridge up the next short slope to the left until we reached the small plateau. In front of us was a dome shaped hill appropriately named Misery Hill. We began to climb up. Not only is this an endless type of hill where the top seems to remain the same distance for a very long period of time, it is also where our bodies began to slow a bit as elevation effects began to settle in at 13200. This, for us, was the crux.

On top of the hill on on the upper large plateau the winds died down and the sun warmed the snow. It was still cold though so we left on the huge puffys and continued across the flats toward the summit block  in front of us. After crossing the plateau the route curves left over a gentle hill that seems less gentle at 13850ft and then curves again to the right heading up a slope and then across a narrow ridge. The top of the summit block could maybe fit 6 people comfortably. But it didn’t matter because we were the first any only ones there that morning! It was 8:15am.  We each took turns climbing the few steep snow steps to the true summit which could fit one person safety. Generous clear views abounded on the summit of 14162ft and although the altitude was definitely felt, it was not horrendous at all.  A couple we had met the day before, who also happened to be from WA and also happened to take some classes with the Mountaineers and had seen me before, joined us a few minutes later. Climbers are a small community.

We descended to 13850ft just above the plateau to a flat area. We wanted to spend a s much time at altitude as possible. So we took a nap here for about 2 hours until our heads began to hurt to badly. Then we descended to 12800ft on the ridge near the Thumb and took another hour nap waiting for the snow to get softer. Then we glissaded all the way back to camp…

And camp was getting packed! The ranger said he expected about 200 climbers to show up. Most of which had never climbed before. I overhead one guy said “Oh yeah, I have an ice axe. I don’t know what to do with it, but I have it”. That’s very useful indeed! I don’t think I have ever seen so many ill prepared folks in one place, not even on Mt Hood. We rested the remainder of the day and shared beta with climbers who were just arriving. At 3am and 5am we witnessed the insane amount of people going up the mountain and were ever so thankful we had ascended the day before. And we were so happy to be back on the cascade volcanoes, climbing at high altitude and pushing ourselves. These passed few weeks have been rough and being on Shasta provided some much needed solace. It never ceases to amaze me how the mountains seem to always reset my life when things get overwhelming. It is in the mountains where I find my focus and my peace in the chaos that seems to overtake me. Without the wilderness are am in turmoil and with the wilderness I find tranquility.

 

Damien and I left Washington at about 9:00pm on Friday and drove through the night to Timberline Lodge at the base of Mt Hood. After spending a rather uncomfortable few hours trying to sleep folded up in the front seats of the car we began the approach. Our packs were extra heavy since we were lugging mountaineering boots up along with the rest of our gear. Our plan was to skin to Illumination Saddle. Then we would nap for the rest of the day in preparation for a nigh time start of the Leuthold Couloir. The freezing level was going to be 12,000ft once the sun came up. We wanted to be past the Hourglass and its infamous falling rim ice before the sun came up.

We followed the ski resort groomer trail a long the lower Chairlift to Silcox hut before Timberline opened it’s lifts to inbound skiers. We then continued up along the Palmer Chairlift which was not in service. It didn’t even have an chairs on the cables! Going seemed very slow by the time we neared the top. Lack of sleep and string sunshine to blame. And of course just as we reached the top of the lift at 8500ft a snow cat comes up and drops off 10 inbound skiers. Slightly disheartening after spending 4 hours trudging up hill to reach the same spot. But oh so worth the effort.

From the top of Palmer we began the mile long traverse left aiming toward Illumination Rock. The Illumination Saddle camp into view as we grew closer, but the traverse seemed endless with the heavy packs. Eventually we arrived at the saddle and set up camp out of the wind below the two saddle ridges. Towers of rim ice rock created magnificant castle-like ice sculptures around us. Rim had a way of making everything look like a fairytale. We were able to peak over the saddle and see the bottom of the couloir as well just before X rated Yocum Ridge. There were footprints to follow which woudl help in the dark and the crevasses did not look like they would present an issue.

Two other parties showed up at the ridge later that afternoon. One pair of backcountry skiers brought a front country Coleman tent that was mostly mesh with a tiny rain fly. They also had full sized beach towels, inbound ski cloths and some huge plastic lunchboxes. Nothing was ultra light or made for camping on a snowy volcano. The other group of three were skiers with proper backcountry gear. However, they were not climbing to the summit.

We slept hard, turning in at about 6:30pm and waking up once to see the sunset. At 2:15am we groggily slithered our of our sleeping bag and began the climb preparations. We began moving at 3:30am. Damien led us down the saddle and over the glacier to the base of the Leuthold Couloir. t would be fairly obviously even without the footprints. This took about 30 minutes. The Couloir is very wide in the beginning with snow from 50-60 degrees. One of two placed were a bit soft, but the bulk of the route was firm. There was some fine rim ice raining down on us, but nothing to cause alarm. Damien placed three pickets, but said afterward that he really only need one or two. I agree. The forth picket he placed at the beginning of the traverse toward the hourglass along with his ice axe as an anchor. He belayed me in from there and we swung leads.

The hourglass is infamous because it acts as a narrow funnel for all the rim ice falling off the rock towers the surround the chute. Sometimes golf ball or larger rim falls from the towards and zooms down the hourglass and with it being such a narrow space there is little room to take shelter. This is why we wanted to climb it in the dark when it was coldest. Even so, as I neared the entrance to the hourglass traversing left i could hear the rim rain loudly falling down the chute. I placed a picket near the wall just before entering the chute. I took a few tried for me to find a place to out it. beneath the snow was pure blue ice. It would have taken a screw. I found that staying on the far right side of the hourglass kept me our of the line of fire from most of the falling debris. A few pea sized pieces of ice hit me face and some bigger chunks hit my helmet, but nothing significant. Abut halfway through the hourglass I moved left as the protection on the right dwindled. Here here was a short 6-8 foot ramp where I actually had to swing my ice tools like i was climbing water ice. It was solid and fun though. The rest of the time we drove in our shafts or daggered the tools.

The Hourglass widened and present two chute options. I crossed over at took the far right chute. This part of the climb was like an endless hill that slowly sloped away so that you felt like no matter how high you climbed the ridge top never got closer. We were out of the line of fire from debris though and the sun was rising painting the sky with beautiful colors. The shadow of Mt Hood appeared on the valley far below us. Purely breathtaking.

Slowly the ridge-top began to stop growing further away. We expected there to be a lot of wind at the ridge crest when we topped it, but it wasn’t more than 10-15 mph. Gorgeous views abounded on either side, but ahead of us on the right the final 800ft of climbing reared up before us. After a brief break on the narrow ridge we climbed around the broad steep slope leading to the catwalk to a flat area where we could see the steep rocky cliffs falling away from the summit. We started up the final ascent here on 40-50 degree snow with a fair amount of rim ice coating it. It went quickly and we found ourselves on the final catwalk to the summit.

There was good trail stamped out on the knife edge walk to the summit. It was all i could do to walk and not run to the top. I was just so excited about my first volcano of the year! The summit was a bit crowded with folks who camp up the South Side, but it emptied out to no one soon after our arrival. Not a breathe of wind touch us and the perfectly clear day afforded us with views of Helens, Adams, Rainier, Three Sisters and Jefferson. I don’t think there was a single cloud in the sky. It’s hard to leave a summit with those conditions and we stayed for about an hour.

Folks are using Pearly Gates this year on the South Side for the final summit push. However, we opted to take Old Chute down instead. It is much wider than Pearly Gates and since so many folks were climbing up it we didn’t want to get involved in a bottleneck. There was a pretty good stairs stamped into the snow going down old chute though we did have to face inward for the bottom part due to the steepness. From there we basically followed the sidewalk that is the South Route to the base of Crater Rock. From Crater Rock we traversed below it aiming to Illumination Rock being careful to gradually descent to our small yellow dot of a tent and not go below it. The entire descent from the summit to camp took about 1.5 hours.

Damien happily walked around camp in shorts and down booties as we made water and chilled before making out final descent back to Timberline. Lots of folks passed through as we napped in the tent. None were climbers though. There were snowshoes left behind from another team we knew who started the climber about three hours behind us. We broke camp after two hours and enjoyed a leisurely ski back down to Timberline. Skiing among inbound recreationalists felt a bit strange with our giant packs. We weren’t half as agile as them on the slopes. It was still an wonderful ski down in good corn snow. First technical volcano of the year! VIEW VIDEO

 

Moderate avalanche danger. Clear Saturdays skies. Moderate temperatures. Could it be that the forecast gods would actually supply a perfect summitting conditions. We held our breathe all week and when Friday arrived and things still looked near perfect we opted to go to Mt St. Helens. Damien and I had climbed this last year as a walk up since the snow was at 6500ft, but had always wanted to do it as an AT ski. This year the snow was right at the trailhead, plus it was our 1 Year Anniversary. Helens was the first peak we summited together as couple so it seemed fitting.

We arrived at the trailhead at about 7:00am. We were certainly not the only folks planning on taking advantage of the weather window. Throngs to snowshoers, skiers and booters were getting ready in the Marble Mountain Sno-Park to join the conga line up the mountain. We ran into Jeff at the trailhead among the many outdoor adventurers… all the mountain in Washington and its amazing how often we run into people we know. We also ran into Michelle further up the mountain.

The route begins on the Swift Ski Trail which is more packed down then any of the other adjoining trails. There are also signs for Worm Flows Climbing route to prevent confusion. The trail ascends through the trees until in breaks into the open at treeline and revealing the first views of Mt St Helens which was 100% mist/cloud free. Chcoclate Falls was frozen and easy to cross unlike last year when it was running. Once on the other side folks can spread out on the ridge leading to Worm Flow.

We stopped at 4200 ft and dropped down into a wide trench to set up camp. We had originally planned to camp on the summit since I couldn’t find information saying that camping was restricted there…until just before leaving the house that morning. Camping is prohibited above 4800ft. It all worked out well though as it were. We were able to climb faster and skiing down was much more fun without excess weight.

After setting up the tent and dropping some overnight gear we continued our journey up. There is an obvious rock ridge leading up the flow. We had taken this talusy route last year when it was snow free. Snowshowers were following it now, but most skiers don’t bother weaving around on the bouldery ridge. We followed the skin track up the steep slopes just left of the ridge along switchbacks. Here we noticed a group where one split boarder was boot-packing up the slope and post-holing right in the track ahead of us. Damien advised them that this was bad wilderness ethics, but the senior skier insisted this was necessary since the spitboarder was a beginner and needed confidence. Ugh. Why is a beginner on Helens? Some other folks joined in showing their displeasure though which ended the post-holing in the track. I don’t like folks with bad manners in the backcountry.

We continued up at a descent pace, but eventually the sun took it toll and we stopped for a break at 6700ft. A cloud of mist had settled over the summit, but I had hope that it would dissipate by the time we arrived and it did!We reached a cloud free summit at about 2:40pm. The winds were high and we wasted no time putting on our big yellow puffys! The crater was 100% clear unlike last year were there was lingering fog. The views all around were perfect as was the climb and since we had started later most people were on their way down and not on the crater rim. I could not have picked a better summit to spend our anniversary weekend. I cannot describe how happy we both were.

We we were even more thrilled with the descent! There are two routes down the mountain (that I saw). One is to stay skiers left of the worm flow and follow open slopes down. The other is to more or less follow the climbing route down, but stay slightly right to avoid foot traffic and makes turns on more open slopes. We stayed right to ensure that we got back to our tent. The first 1000ft down was pretty steep, but after that the slopes mellowed out and we made excellent turns on spring corn snow! Conditions could not have been any better and they were consistent! Not an icy of slushy patch to be found! We were able to ski all the way back to the tent door!

It rained on and off a all evening, but nothing major. An almost full moon lit up the night and before down we looked up at the mountain to see headlamp of some folks hoping to beat the bad weather. It was picture perfect and it was March 20… our official anniversary. Morning revealed thick grey clouds coming in from the south as we packed up camp. We hoped most folks would avoid climbing Helens due to the the bad weather pushing in. Skiing down the treed lower trail with a bunch of folks marching up would have been tedious. As luck would have it we had an awesome run through the lower slopes of treeline on snow as excellent as the day before. We ran into a lone climber that SAR would have labeled a “future subject”. He had on blue jeans and a cotton, short sleeved shirt. From his tiny non-technical backpack dangled mountaineering boots fitted with crampons (the spikes were not protected in any way and the boots were swinging freely). He wore low, mesh hiking boots on his feet. Damien gave him a warning about climbing in such attire especially with the incoming rain. The man said that he climbed mountains dressed like that all the time… plus he had a blow up sled in his pack to descend. The pack was so tiny with a sled I expect that layers food, water and other safety gear did not also fit. Just wow.

The rolling trail in the trees was much more fun that we expected. It was like being on a groomed fun with lots of fun twists and turns. We only stopped for one team heading up the mountain and skier right up the the door of my car! I noted though that some portions of the trail had some very thin snow cover which was very different than just 24 hours prior. I expect that these areas are now dirt patches.

The whole mountain was amazing. The very best AT ski we have both done! We finished off the weekend by going to Ape Caves. You have to walk the road .75 miles to the TH since the road is closed in the winter so we had the cave mostly to ourselves… its a great place to hike in the rain (though there are some leaks). Once again it was the most fun we’ve ever had on talus and a great end to a perfect weekend.

I love you Damien. Happy 1 Year Anniversary! VIEW VIDEO

 

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!

 

 

Damien and I snagging last minute reservations to climb Mt Rainier via the Emmons Glacier Route. Damien climbed the mountain last year on the DC route… I had never climbed it. We figured since we already climbed 3 volcanos this year we might as well go for another. The weather was predicted to the clear and sunny… perhaps a bit overly sunny, but we figured travel by night would mitigate most of the sunshine issues. Our training was up to par. We took aspirin for two weeks to thin our our blood a bit to deal with elevation and climbed to Camp Muir the weekend before. Now we just needed to actually start climbing!

Damien and I got out of work early on Thursday to pick up our permits. The ranger at the White River Ranger station warned of very thin snow bridges and gaping crevasses in the corridor. Plus a questionable “snow chockstone” bridge over the upper bergschrund. To top it off some of the route was pure ice due to the lack of snow. Self arresting would be impossible in some areas and a few screws were recommended. We kicked ourselves for a bit. We had talked about taking a  few screws and then decided against it. We decided to drive back to Everett to get our screws… then we came back and slept in the car. We got up at 2am… the ranger’s intimidating talk started to get to us and we began to wonder if climbing the Emmons was a safe idea after all. We discussed everything for about an hour and decided to do something else for the weekend… but when we got home we felt horrible about bailing so we drove back to the park and headed down the trail at 12:30pm Friday. We no longer find the drive to White River enjoyable.

The Glacier Basin trail begins in the White River Campground (4500ft) and gradually ascended through mostly shady forest to Glacier Basin in 3.1 miles. There is running water along the way and Glacier Basin Camo has access to the silty White River on a side trail. The basin is completely melted out which I’ve been told in very unusual. The unmaintained trail from here is very easy to follow, but gets rougher as it follows the white River from the grassy basin to the moraines of the InterGlacier. We put on our harnesses and crampons at the base of the ice slope, but figured we’d rope up higher up on the big ice field.  Access onto the glacier is made treacherous due to running water running swiftly under the ice and snowpack which is thin in some places. There are large areas of exposed steep ice and self arresting would be futile. Rockfall from the surrounding cliffs is frequent so stay out of the fall line. We roped up about 600ft up the slope before the first crevasses. By then it was 6:00pm.

There is a beaten bootpack that leads up what seamed like an endless slope. Every time i thought we were at the top there was another slope behind it! We stepped over a few crevasses and crossed a snow bridge. Nothing was dicey. We were just very very tired at this point! Finally we arrived at the rocky area known as Camp Curtis. We picked our way over some rocky ledges and were greeted with a full view of Mount Rainier… and the long track we had to follow below to Camp Schurman (9450ft). We carefully descended the sandy rock ledges back onto the snow, now passing mammoth crevasses and Little Tacoma to the left. The path seemed to go on forever and the little hut of Camp Schurman never seemed to get closer. But we did finally reach it just as the sun began to dip below the horizon. We joined the other late comers in digging our a space for our tent on the snow left of the rock plateau the dry campsites and hut were located. The wind howled as we staked down our tent with our pickets. Folks nearby us were really struggling with their massive dome shaped tents, but getting up our BD Eldorado was fairly easy. The city light of Seattle glowed far below us against a smoky pink sky as we finally snugged up inside the tent at 10:30pm. Damien ate gummy worms for dinner… I had goldfish (whole gain of course!).

We awoke late on Saturday morning. This was our day to chill and rest before the climb. We hung around camp talking to the ranger and other climbers. I’d never been to a basecamp like this before complete with prayer flags and plastic flamingos outside the hut. We switchout our pickets and staked down out tent up our snow parachutes… had last nights dinner for breakfast. Base camp activities and a lot of sleeping. Climbers seemed to be having success with the route, though many warned of icy on top of the corridor being very cruxy. Damien and I were concerned about the heat forecast for Sunday as well and figured it would be best to start as early as possible just as the glacier began to freeze up and get down before the sun had much time to heat up the route. We decided that we would head out at about 10pm.

As the sky dimmed Damien and I donned our harnesses. We’d been studying the route all day. The corridor would be the hard part it seemed. We were the first team to break camp and head into the darkness. We passed through Emmons flats easily following a boot pack across the gentle slope. Then the real climbing began. We followed a narrow ledge beside a massive crevasse up onto the corridor. Bridges were everywhere and many were disguised as solid snow. I crossed one and only realized i was on a bridge when my ice axe punched through halfway across! We moved carefully and with purpose. The path was easy to follow… but sketch. We stopped over a crevasses with a deep lip. The going was on wither very soft snow or solid ice. Whenever Damien crossed what seemed like thin bridge I would go into arrest position if i could, but in some places it was impossible due to the ice. Getting a picket to rescue would not work here. At about 11,000 ft Damien came across a very sketch bridge. It had two footholds punches through it as though someone had fallen through and their crotch stopped them. Damien crossed to the left of it… up ahead her could see even more thin bridges in a seracs field. It didn’t look bad from down at camp… it was very different up close. We moved into what we assessed to be a safe place and stopped to examine the situation. Snow bridges around us were making funny sounds. Someone had punched through this one earlier. The day was going to get warm and through we could probably make it up just fine getting down could lead to an epic. Self arresting was not always an option. We are conservative climbers.. we bailed… and it became very clear that this was the right move in a matter of minutes a few feet below the bridge with the boot punctures the ground under Damien made a big whump sound and sunk a bit…. he was on a weak hidden bridge. We moved down the mountain surprisingly not in sadness, but feeling pretty happy with ourselves for not letting our ambition override our judgement. This is the first time I didn’t horrible about being forced to bail. For the first time it wasn’t about the summit… it was about the journey. I’ve always been obsessed with summits  and getting as many as possible. I didn’t care how I obtained that goal. Amount of mountains climbed is still important to me… but the route and journey there now holds importance as well. That is something Damien has shown me.

Climbers definitely made the summit that day, we saw them near the top when we woke up later that morning. I don’t know what it was like for them coming down. Damien said the route probably will only be in a day or two more. We’re glad we made our decision regardless of the others. It was the right one for us. We broke campo and headed down the InterGlacier. It was so warm that i ended up wearing just my tank top and wishing i could convert to shorts. I always knew this would happen eventually… i never thought it would be on Rainier. My watch read 83 degees at Camp Curtis and it was about 8:45am! Descending the InterGlacier wasn’t as bad as going up… good amount of rockfall in some areas though due to the heat.

We walked out of the wilderness at 12:45pm to what would be the hottest day of the year in Seattle. Until next year Emmons Glacier!