July 10, 2011

Oops, I Failed Again

After failing to climb at Exfoliation Dome two weekends ago and failing to climb/ski Mt. Shuksan last weekend, I promptly failed to climb Mt. Rainier this weekend.  Oddly enough, each of these trips turned out to be quite enjoyable despite the fail trend.  I won't know what to do with myself if I actually manage to climb something one of these days.  I'll elaborate on my most recent failure since it is very fresh in my mind.

Dane and I have been planning to attempt a climb of Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier for a while, and we finally found a weekend where we were both free and the weather appeared like it was going to cooperate.  We left Seattle on Saturday morning with plans of approaching to Thumb Rock (10,800') about 1/3 of the way up the ridge that day and completing the climb on Sunday.  We both fully recognized the ambitious nature of this plan upon its inception.

Dane on St. Elmo's Pass
Beginning at the White River Campground at 7:45am Saturday, we made good time up to the Inter Glacier, over St. Elmo's Pass, across the Winthrop Glacier, and over to Curtis Ridge, where we arrived at 12:15pm.  From here our daily route plan entailed crossing the Carbon Glacier to the base of Liberty Ridge, and ascending Liberty Ridge for 1,800 feet to Thumb Rock.

The North Face of Mt. Rainier and the Carbon Glacier - Liberty Ridge cuts straight down the middle
From our vantage point on Curtis Ridge, a typical camping spot for a 3-day ascent, we could see that the lower part of the ridge was very melted out.  We ruled out trying to scramble up steep, rotten rock, which made the most reasonable option to ascend the snow slopes on the climber's right side of the ridge directly to Thumb Rock.  With heavy rockfall guarding the base of the ridge during the heat of the day, we decided to wait until early the following day and alter our plans to summit from lower down.

Close up of Liberty Ridge, all 5,000 vertical feet of it
Before going to bed that night, we heard the Liberty Cap glacier calve twice.  This is essentially an 500-foot wall of ice breaking off in pieces and cascading down several thousand feet to the Carbon Glacier.  The route we would need to take to reach the snow slope leading to Thumb Rock, as we both knew all too well, would cause us to travel precariously close to the run-out zone of said ice fall.  We decided to get up early and give it a go.

We started crossing the Carbon Glacier at 12:45am.  About two hours later, aided by footprints from another party, we reached the area near the base of the snow slope we were aiming for.  As we predicted, large crevasses barred access from the glacier to the ridge.  The only option was for us to traverse far to the right, around the crevasse and over obvious debris from the glacier calving activities observed the previous night.  We were already slightly exposed to this danger and moving right would just make it worse.  The odds of the glacier calving while we were under it were low, but the consequences were of the highest degree.  Not wanting to spend time deliberating while exposed to this threat, Dane, who was in the lead at that point, made an executive to decision to initiate a hasty retreat.

At 3:30am we were back at our previous campsite, having had a nice midnight jaunt across the Carbon Glacier and back.  I don't think I've ever been on a large glacier in the middle of the night before, and found this experience quite fun/eerie/surreal.  We considered traversing back to the Emmons Glacier and summiting via this easier and less committing route, but ultimately decided that this would make for a very long day with disproportionate rewards.  So we re-set-up camp and went back to bed.  Starting about 9am we retraced our route from the previous day back to the trailhead.

Despite reaching a high point a vertical mile below the summit, we still obtained fantastic views, got lots of exercise (ascended about 5,000 vertical feet with full packs and covered about 14 miles), and came back safely.  It sure beat watching TV all weekend.  I'm excited to try this again next season, earlier in the year when the lower ridge is snow covered and the objective hazards significantly reduced.

1 comment:

B said...

best climbing blog post I've read in a while. this was a great decision, the mountain is rather unstable right now. hope you see it as a great success--you're safe and you still like your partner.

nice job!