June 17, 2008

Mt. Rainier: 0 for 2

I spent much of last week undertaking a spectacular failed attempt at reaching the summit of Mt. Rainier. After meeting up with Jake in P-town late Sunday night, we drove up to the White River Campground near the base of Mt. Rainier on its northeast side. Our goal for the day was to hike to Camp Scherman at about 9500 feet, a 5000 foot elevation gain from the trailhead, with heavy packs. At around 9000 feet, the weather went from sunny and breezy to blowing snow in the midst of a vicious, sustained wind with ridiculous gusts. At this point we made a decision to set up camp rather than risk wandering farther into the storm. We spent the rest of the day chillin' in the tent and playing cards (we later found out that this sudden-onset storm ultimately killed a guy on the south side of the mountain and forced his two partners to require evacuation).

We slept in the next day as the storm was still raging outside. Upon trying to exit the tent I realized it was quite buried, making an escape without filling the tent with snow somewhat challenging. Kudos to Mountain Hardware for making a tent that can turn into a snowcave without deforming.

The tent after the storm

By noon we decided to brave the waning storm and work our way to Camp Schurman. A hike that should have taken about 2 hours took closer to 4 as we battled 2 feet of fresh snow, moderate winds, and challenging visibility. At high camp, we found the shelter staffed with 2 climbing rangers, a guided party of about 6 people, and a party of 2 Koreans who were on their way home from climbing Mt. Foraker in Alaska. The Koreans passed us about the time the storm hit the day before and managed to make it all the way.

The ranger's cabin

Not wanting the tent to be buried again, we quickly went to work building a protective wall. An hour later, we had the most luxurious camp for miles until the following day when two more guided parties showed up.

The wall at high camp

We knew the weather wasn't supposed to be very good the following day either, so we slept in with hopes that our last possible summit day (Thursday) would be nicer. We spent Wednesday sleeping, eating, and playing in crevasses. We practiced crevasse rescue techniques and had a lot of fun in the process.

Jake playing in a crevasse

The clouds above and below us continually came and went, providing brief glimpses of the mountain and surrounding terrain. The massive size of the mountain, combined with the fact that we were on the largest glacier in the continental US, made it seem like we were on a different planet. That night, we overheard the guided parties' plans to start hiking at about 1 am for the summit. We adjusted our schedule to give them a head start in hopes that they would provide a nice boot track until the time we would catch and pass them.

We started hiking at 3 am on Thursday under a perfectly clear sky. The route was pretty straight forward until we got to the top of the corridor, a relatively uncrevassed strip of snow and ice that defines the junction of the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers. At this point, we passed the first guided rope team. We continued to follow the other rope teams still above us as they traversed left under and around a heavily crevassed zone of the Emmons glacier. One by one, the remaining guided rope teams turned around. Client fatigue was my guess at their reasoning for turning around, because the weather was nearly perfect except for a mild wind.

Alpinglow on summit day

At about 12,500 feet we passed the last party, which was resting before they headed down. At this point, we decided to stop our leftward traverse and head up. Three-hundred feet higher up, we began to second guess our route finding decision. We entered a maze of crevasses and seracs that originally appeared to have a weakness, permitting access to the smooth surface above the icefall.

Off route in the land of the seracs

After attempting several dead-end paths, we decided to backtrack to 12,500 feet and traverse further left in attempt to go around the obstacle. This proved to be something we should have tried a long time ago, as the difficulties eased greatly. After getting to a point where we could see that we were around the problems we had previously encountered, we again headed up. At 8:00 am, we were at about 12,800 feet, where it got a bit windier. There was a wand marking a crevasse crossing, which was a good sign that we were now on a reasonable route. With 1600 vertical feet left and the crevasse and route finding difficulties behind us, we turned around.

Looking down the Emmons glacier

We were back to the tent by 10:00, and there still wasn't a cloud in the sky. It seemed a shame that we put in all the effort over the previous days to haul all our gear to high camp and wait for decent weather just to turn around 1600 vertical feet from the summit under near ideal conditions. Even so, we had a great time, learned a lot, and got Jake to the highest elevation he's yet to achieve. Provided it doesn't pull a "St. Helens", the mountain should be there for future attempts.

1 comment:

Molly said...

Whooooooaaaaa alpinglow! Some truly beautiful shots you got there. I particularly like the buried tent shot. Words just didn't do it justice. Well, at least you'll get to go back and take more beautiful pictures. And at least you have a camera that finally works in the gd snow and ice.