For about a year Rainier had been on my mind. Two years ago in June, Wade, Harold, Maggie, Beth and I had been turned around on the Kautz Cleaver route. According to Mike Gauthier, author of a Mt Rainier guidebook, the Kautz Cleaver sees little climbing activity, and that year was no exception. When we attempted the climb the last time, we were told that we were the first party on the route that year. That fact alone made it worth another try.
In mid June, Wade and I both had a weekend free, so, weather permitting, Rainier was penciled in. We decided to do a carry over on the route and descend the technically easier Disappointment Cleaver Route. The catch was that we planned to hitchhike from Paradise down to the trailhead at Comet Falls after finishing the route. The logic went like this: There will be a lot of people (and climbers!) coming down from Paradise at that time in the afternoon. It will be a breeze. So I bought into the plan.
I had a wedding to attend in Oregon, so I met Wade at my sister’s house in Tacoma. Wade, in a conscientious attempt to save the planet, had taken the train from Mt Vernon down to Tacoma. I was not in town when the train arrived, so I had my sister go pick him up. My description was, “The scruffy looking guy with a yellow backpack with no lid.” She found him easily. That night we sorted gear on my sister’s front lawn and slept fitfully in anticipation of the next day’s activities.
We woke at 6:00AM, and hit the road with a brief stop for a McBreafast of some sort. We arrived at the ranger station at Longmire a good fifteen minutes before they opened. After the usual twenty questions about our level of expertise, we ponied up the requisite thirty bucks for the yearly Rainier climbing permit. A short drive to the trailhead, and we were hiking by 8:30.
The approach starts at the Comet Falls trailhead at an elevation of 3600 feet and then follows the trail up to the Wapowety Cleaver. After a few stream crossings, we encountered snow at about 5000 feet. Here our progress slowed somewhat, until we were able to gain the ridge on top of the Wapowety Cleaver. At about 8000 feet, we crossed the cleaver and dropped down onto the Lower Kautz Glacier for a rising traverse to gain the Kautz Cleaver at 8800 feet. We climbed the cleaver to about 10500 feet, bypassing the bivy site described in both Beckey’s and Gauthier’s guidebooks. By the time we had ascended above 10000 feet, the wind had picked up considerably, with the gusts nearly knocking us over. Two days previous to this, a climber had died on Liberty Ridge. We wondered if this strong wind was a factor in that mishap.
Instead of bivying out in the open, we decided to dig a cave on the lee side of the cleaver to protect us against the wind. We started digging around 6:30PM, and had our little hooch finished by 8:00. By this time the effects of a long day and the altitude were taking their toll on me. All I felt like doing was sitting down and maybe napping a little. However, it did not seem to affect Wade that much. He kept digging like there was a pot of gold or some lightweight biners hidden under the snow.
After finishing our cave we had dinner going without much delay. We had decided to bring two stoves for safety’s sake, which made melting water and cooking go quickly. After dinner, we set our alarms for 3:00AM and snuggled into our bivy sacks. Or at least I snuggled into my bivy sack. In an attempt so shave weight for the carry over, Wade had brought his ultra-light emergency bivy. I, however, had brought my two-pound mini-tent bivy. We were protected from the elements quite well, except for the occasional strong gust, which blew spindrift into our little ice palace. Wade made me take the spot nearest the opening, but was still getting snow blown on his face the entire night. I rolled down the top on my bivy, and slept as well as one can in a snow cave at 10500 feet.
I was dreaming of some warm and sunny spot when the alarm so rudely interrupted my bliss. It was very dark outside the cave and the wind was still howling. After a quick discussion, we decided to continue sleeping, and see if the wind would abate at a more gentlemanly hour. After about an hour and a half, (which seemed to be about ten minutes), Wade woke me up. Something was very different; it was quiet. The wind had stopped.
Hurriedly, we cooked breakfast and broke camp. Wade is known for being somewhat of a compulsive re-packer and being the last one to get moving in the morning, but he had me beat that day. Every time I thought I was ready to go, I remembered that I needed one more thing, and it happened to be at the bottom of the pack. It must have been my oxygen starved brain malfunctioning. It took us at least an hour to finally start up the hill.
Wade started leading up a small snow step that was about 60 degrees, then eased to 35 degrees. In his usual style, Wade was like a man possessed by the summit demon. I was having a hard time just keeping up with him, and he was breaking trail! Now I was cursing my two-pound bivy, and Wade was wondering why the old man was taking so long.
The route follows the Kautz Cleaver up a number of gullies and chutes, until about 12000 feet. Here the route joins the Success Cleaver, and bears right under the Success Cleaver to join Point Success. The snow conditions we encountered were variable. In some spots, there was a perfect crust to walk on and we made good time. In most areas however, the crust did not support our weight, and we were post holing through unconsolidated snow.
At 12000 feet, we made a detour left to check out the Tahoma Headwall, (another Beckey first ascent), and determine that it was in fact very scary and not our route. After that small route finding problem, we did a climbing traverse up and right through a series of snow chutes under a steep headwall. This headwall provided some steep and possibly mixed climbing that would allow access to the top of the ridge on the Success Cleaver. Ahead we could see a chute that looked more moderate and would lead to the ice field and Point Success, and opted for this instead of climbing the headwall. Here, the slope angle increased to 45-50 degrees and the snow was deep and soft. And to add to the Mt Rainier experience, the exposure was incredible with the Kautz Glacier 3500 feet below us. We ended up setting up a running belay for three pitches here until we gained the ice cap at Point Success.
After a hurried lunch, we climbed up to Point Success and broke out the map. The actual summit is hard to pick out from Point Success, as we found out. After hiking over to what we thought was the summit, we broke out the maps once again. The summit was actually another half mile (or so it seemed) across the huge ice cap. I had a feeling that the first point was not the actual summit; there were not any pee stains in the snow.
After finally gaining the summit at the late hour of 4:00PM, we descended a short distance and talked to the first people we had seen all day. They had what looked to be a huge ice screw and were taking core samples of the summit ice cap for documentation.
We descended the Disappointment Cleaver Route, following the highway marked with wands. On the descent, at about 12000 feet, I had a slight bonking incident, and had to stop for about a half an hour to regain my strength. From experience, I can testify that chocolate covered espresso beans work wonders when you run out of energy.
We arrived at Camp Muir at about 7:30PM, melted some snow for water, ate some food, and headed down the Muir Snowfield bound for Paradise. On the way down at this late hour, I was getting worried about the plan to hitchhike back to the car. However, when clomping into the parking lot at Paradise, we happened to see some climbers loading gear in their car. There were only three of them; they would have room to take one of us to Comet Falls, which was on their way out. They were climbers; they would understand our situation. After talking to them, they made it clear that their gear was going to occupy the fourth seat, and it did not want to give up that prestigious position for us. It turned out that they were not real climbers at all. One of them was actually from Hawaii, and the rest from the East Coast somewhere. So we started walking. Having never been to Paradise before, I had to break out the map to ensure that we were walking the correct direction.
After stashing our packs, and scaring a few motorists with crooked smiles and extended thumbs, we resigned ourselves to walking the entire seven miles in our plastic boots. Luckily, after three miles, some teenagers took pity on us and gave us a ride. We finally arrived back at the car at 10PM. Too tired to drive back to Skagit County, and unwilling to wake up my sister, we crashed at a cheap motel in Tacoma.
Route Notes: This is an early season climb when the gullies and chutes have snow instead of scree or rock. The bivy spot described in the guidebooks is a poor one. On both climbs, we continued another 300 feet to a notch in the cleaver and camped there. We brought one second ice tool, which came in handy for the leader on the three pitches that we belayed. We used the four pickets that we took, while the ice screws were not used. The route took us longer than we expected due to the poor snow conditions. For the second time, it seemed like we had the entire mountain to ourselves, which is rare on Rainier. I would recommend doing a carry-over on this route, parking the car at Paradise and starting the climb from there. This would eliminate the need to hitchhike back down to Comet Falls. Down climbing the route is feasible, but might require some rappels or belayed down climbing. I would highly recommend this route for climbers looking for a greater challenge than the standard routes provide.