July 12, 2012

Fourth Time's a Charm

I had previously tried to climb Mt. Rainier on three occasions: twice via Liberty Ridge on the north side of the mountain and once via the Emmons Glacier on the east side.  For the last several weeks I've had an itch to try and ski off of the summit, with the primary goal of actually making it there.  With shitty weather up until the 4th of July, last weekend was the first weekend suitable for such an attempt.

I sent out an email and quickly rounded up Brian and Rodrigo as climbing partners.  Ava decided to join us the evening before we left, making us a group of four.  I had decided to attempt the Emmons Glacier route because I was most familiar with it and it's also the least technical route on the mountain, making it more suitable for a less harrowing ski descent.

Who doesn't love sunrises at 12,500 ft?

The route ascends 10,000 vertical feet in about 8.5 miles.  Our plan was to head up to Camp Schurman (picking off about half of the elevation gain) on Saturday and summit and return to the car on Sunday.  Two solid days in a row, but manageable provided the altitude didn't twist our sea-level softened lungs up too bad.

We arrived at the Sunrise Ranger Station about 10 minutes before they opened (second group in line), and were the last group to receive a permit to camp at Camp Schurman.  Apparently the rest of Seattle was waiting for the first nice weekend of the year as well.

We may have put the skis on a little too early

With full packs on plus skis on our backs, we headed for Schurman.  About four miles later, at Glacier Basin, we were able to put our skis on and skin the rest of the way.  We intentionally maintained a leisurely pace the entire day to maintain energy for the following day.  Even so, we arrived at camp by 3:00, leaving plenty of time to melt snow, eat, and hydrate before going to bed.  Ava had developed a headache on the way up which worsened after we got to camp.  Rest, food, water, and Diamox eventually reversed this, but we all agreed it would be best if she didn't go up further.

Camp Schurman

That evening I chatted with the rangers staffing Camp Schurman about this ski conditions, what to expect, and when would be the best time to descend.  They recommended descending quite late (3pm) to allow as much of the ice up high to soften as possible.  I was also informed of the one crux of the route, a dicey little snow bridge that was about to melt out in awkward terrain with crevasses all around.  This would turn out to be the one and only place a skier would need to rope up on the descent.  As Brian and Rodrigo would not be bringing skis with them, I would be skiing alone and have no one to rope up with when I arrived at the crux unless I waited for them.  This, combined with the recommended late descent, made me decide to stash my skis just below the suspect snow bridge at about 11,700 ft.  I felt more relieved at going to bed with a concrete plan than disappointed about giving up on my hopes of a summit ski descent.

Brian, Rodrigo, and I got up at 1am and were moving up the mountain about 40 minutes later.  By the time we started, there was a pretty steady stream of headlamps from camp (9,500 ft) up to about 12,000 ft.  With Brian in the lead, we moved steadily up the lower part of the mountain, passing several slower groups as we went.  When we stashed my skis below the snow bridge at about 11,700 ft, we encountered a bottleneck that had been developing for some time.  We killed about 45 minutes here, which was frustrating but provided a situation where all we could do was eat and drink.  This extra eating and drinking came in handy as the day progressed.

While one would definitely want to be roped up for it, the bridge turned out to not be as bad as advertised.  The rest of the way to the top was sustained in steepness and littered with other climbers, all of whom seemed to be moving painfully slowly.  In several more places we were forced to wait as groups stopped in inconvenient spots for long periods of time - more eating and drinking.

Nearly the whole day the wind had been quite gusty, with frequent 25 to 30 mph gusts.  As we neared the top, we got reports from descending parties that the wind on the summit was horrendous.  After reaching the top of several false summits, we gained what seemed to be another one, only this time the wind was no longer gusting, it had turned into a steady 35 mph headwind.  A short walk through this wind on the rocky ridge of the crater rim brought us to the true summit at 14,410 ft.  We took a few quick pictures before retreating back to the leeward side of the mountain.

Brian, Joji, and Rodrigo at 14,410 ft in Washington
(I'm not mad, my face is just numb from walking into the wind so I couldn't control it)

Descending as a rope team always seems to take longer than it needs to, and this day was no exception.  We eventually made it back to the crux snow bridge and attempted to find an alternate passage.  An alternate passage we found, but it was arguably just as sketchy while being more technical - oh well.  After the bridge, Brian and Rodrigo dropped me off at my skis and continued descending.  I radioed Ava back at camp to inform her that I was going to start skiing, and she proceeded to take some video with the camera.  Unfortunately, I'm not visible in most of these because, although in a direct line of sight, I was too far away.  I descended the 2,200 vertical feet in about 5 minutes and was happy to rest in camp for a bit before continuing our descent.

Rodrigo and Brian showed up in camp about 25 minutes later looking like hell.  Apparently the sticky snow I had skied on the last 1,000 ft had been a postholing nightmare for the two of them, sapping the last of their energy.  Thankfully, Ava was an amazing camp host and already had lots of snow melted for water and was in the process of cooking up some pasta.  We rested, ate, and hydrated in camp for about two hours before continuing our descent.

Skiing down the Inter Glacier

The ski down from camp started out treacherously sticky, but counter-intuitively got better as we went down.  The Inter Glacier turns out to be a super fun, sustained pitch to ski even with a full pack.  Once back at Glacier Basin, we put the skis back on the packs, Ava and I switched to running shoes, and we hiked the last few miles back to the car.


While nothing on the route was difficult, it did prove to be a beast of a hike with plenty of elevation gain.  I'm psyched to have made it to the top and  super happy with how well my body handled the altitude and the back-to-back long days.  Now it's time for some warm, sunny rock climbing.

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