July 22-25, 2011
Though not as popular and well known as neighboring Liberty Ridge, many climbers who have done both consider Ptarmigan Ridge a better climb, and possibly the best route on Mt. Rainier. The path of Ptarmigan Ridge is less direct and the position less striking, and sadly the real climbing ends at a much lower altitude than Liberty Ridge (ca. 12,200’ rather than at Liberty Cap’s lofty 14,112’.) However, Ptarmigan Ridge offers more technical climbing, with steeper slopes, more ice, and a choice of two finishes: A less popular variation that climbs through an icefall to the left, and the standard right variation that ascends a chimney system through a rock band and requires some technical rock climbing on perhaps the only good rock on the mountain.
Friday – “Mostly Sunny” Approach to Observation Camp
Although it seems that most climbers these days climb the ridge after a long traverse across the Winthrop and Carbon Glaciers from the White River Trailhead, we opted for the original & more scenic approach from Mowich Lake. I wasn’t a fan of the 2 hour drive required to set up the car shuttle (or the 2 hour drive back after the climb), but this approach was so much more scenic than the White River one and totally worth the effort.
The forecast for the weekend and all of next week was “Mostly Sunny” with a high pressure system that settled in. The clouds at the Mowich trailhead apparently didn’t get the message, as we had to navigate in whiteout by GPS through Spray Park. Normally a nice meadow of wildflowers this time of year, we were still climbing on snow.
I was getting worried that we wouldn’t be able to observe the mountain from our camp at Observation Rock, but fortunately as we got higher and the day dragged on the clouds lowered and we were treated with a spectacular view of the north side of Mt. Rainier.
We crossed the Flett Glacier at set up camp at a nice spot with running water and two large boulders that made for some interesting bouldering problems – especially in our mountaineering boots.
Just watch out for the sharp rocks if you fall – Anastasia drew first blood from her rump after slipping off one of the boulders :-)
Anastasia chose to spend the rest of the day relaxing at camp while I spazzed out and ran further up the ridge, camera in tow.
I was hoping to get some nice shots of the Mowich Face since I’m interested in doing some future ice climbs there, and after ascending another 1,000 ft I found a nice overlook to the Mowich Face and North Mowich Glacier
I woke up from my nap and tagged Observation Pk on my way back to camp. I recommend this side trip as it is pretty easy and you get great views of the entire north side of Mt. Rainier.
After dinner, I got out my camera and tripod and spent the night taking long exposure shots between sleeping breaks. The weather was mild, so I just moved my sleeping bag around with my camera as I took different shots, sleeping during the hour it took to get some of the shots.
Saturday – ‘Dogturdite’ Ridge and Approaching High CampThis day was a short, chill day up to High Camp. The Russell Glacier was chill enough that like on the Flett Glacier there was no need to rope up.
Most of the approach is pretty easy by staying on the Russell Glacier to the east of the ridge crest for most of the approach.
Next step was crossing what Anastasia called “Dogturdite Ridge”, which is the final knife-edge ridge leading to the Ptarmigan Ridge high camp ("dogturdite" is a definition by Kyle Flick, a local WA climber, who gave Anastasia beta on its bypass last year). If it were composed of dog turd it may not have been so bad, but since it was actually composed of Cascade volcanic graham cracker, this made for some interesting class 2 scrambling with a heavy pack on. Though Anastasia was native to Portland and led WI4, somehow she has thus far avoided much of the loose rock in the Cascades, as she was scared stiff on this section. I just kicked down rocks and dug into the gravel until I got some small toe prints that would hold, and delicately moved across the terrain, telling her which rocks you can lean on, and reminding her to try to stay balanced on her feet and not lean in to pull on rocks.
We were stopped by an overhanging rock step, but bypassed it by down climbing 40 degree snow slopes to the east for about 200 ft and traversing the rest of the ridge on the lower snow slopes.
Since we had another early day at camp, but I couldn’t easily venture higher on the mountain this day, I used my energy to make some productive additions to the high camp.
We had another clear night so I spent another night doing night photography. (In case you were wondering, yes, ice avalanches come off of the Ptarmigan Ice Cliff pretty frequently, but the camp is just high enough from the connecting saddle and the ridge shear enough that the camp is protected from the debris).
Sunday – Ptarmigan Ridge!
There was one other party on the route that day, and they were about 1 hour and 1,000 ft ahead of us. As the sun cast brilliant alpenglow on the rocks above little bits of ice trickled down the slope as we simul-soloed up slopes of continuous slopes of 40 degree neve with occasional short bits of ice. At first I thought the ice trickles were knocked down by the other climbers, but eventually the trickles grew larger and some rocks started coming down with them – the sun was reaching the plastered rime on the cliffs above!
Anastasia seemed used to this and climbed on. Coming from the more solid ranges of the Sierra and the Wasatch, I’m not used to projectiles flying at me, so now it was my turn to be the shaky-legged one. Eventually I got used to it and learned to keep my eyes & ears open to the sound of falling debris, and then tuck in my tools and keep my head down when the little barrage arrived.
Although the climbing was still easy, we did start placing screws at this point as we were more worried about a fall caused by getting hit than by lack of technique. I got my opportunity to lead just before the steep traverse. We were encountering more ice now, and the traverse was quite a thrilling surprise – 300 ft of continuous traversing on 55 degree ice, with a lot of exposure below. I front-pointed and swung tools the entire way, but fortunately the ice was easy enough if you tested placements, so I only placed one stubby every 100 ft – just enough to keep one piece between us as we simul-climbed.
Now it was getting fun as the slopes got icier and stayed in the 45-55 degree range. After the traverse Anastasia took off in the lead. She led the remaining pitches as we agreed that I’d get the rock pitch if she could have the ice pitches.
The route ascended a series of short icy headwalls connected by sections of steep traversing as we threaded the cliff bands. The climbing was great! Ice everywhere, but none of it was too hard so we made decent time.
The only way things could have been better was if we had brought more screws. We only had 4, and with continuous ice and a 30m rope, we had to stop every 300 ft to recover screws, and all anchors were built out of a single stubby equalized with two tools. We would have been faster and more secure with 8 screws in these conditions.
At last we reached the rock chimney, and I eagerly charged up into the rocks.
I clambered through some class 4 rock mixed with snow and ice, climbed up a short section of ice, and reached the crux rock step.
The step is about 15 ft of 5.6 climbing, but doing this section in crampons with a heavy pack made it a lot more interesting! I placed a cam to backup the hidden piton at the crux (we brought them so I might as well use them), and after a bit of stemming & mantling I was above the rock band.
We encountered one more pitch of ice above the rock and then the climb was over. It was only about noon and now we had a little under 2,000 ft of slogging up snow slopes to reach Liberty Cap, with only 1 bergschrund crossing to keep us entertained.