A Few DetailsRoute: Liberty Ridge
Trailhead: White River
Dates: June 30 - July 2, 2006
Summit Day: July 2, 2006
Descent Route: Emmons Glacier
Climbers: Joseph Bullough (myself), Brian Dutton
And a special guest appearance by Lubos Pavel
June 30, 2006 - Drive DayOur adventure to climb Mount Rainier's Liberty Ridge began on Friday, June 30. Brian arrived at my house 10 minutes early, excessively prompt as usual, and we proceeded with the challenging task of stuffing all our gear into Brian's Hyundai. We'd both adopted the strategy of "if in doubt, bring it", figuring we'd eventually decide what to carry at the trailhead.
By 6:10 am we were on the road for the 800 mile drive from Salt Lake to Rainier. I made a quick phone call to
We made our way to the White River Ranger Station to pick up climbing permits and camp reservations. Based on several trip reports we'd read during our climb research, we expected to be interrogated by the climbing ranger regarding our skills and experience, but this did not turn out to be the case. We were also pleased to learn there were still camping slots available in Glacier Basin that evening, which would allow us to knock off 3 miles on our arrival day, rather than spending the night at the trailhead campground as originally planned.
After the short drive to the trailhead it was decision time; we began sorting and cramming gear into our packs, trying to take everything we thought we'd need, but nothing more. The biggest decision seemed to involve tent vs. bivy sacks; we wavered back and forth, ultimately opting to go with bivy sacks based on the good weather forecast for the next few days.
Around 7:00 pm we headed up the trail, making the uneventful hike to Glacier Basin in just under 90 minutes. Feeling pleased at having been able to put 3 miles and 1,500 vertical feet behind us on our "drive day", we settled in for the night.
July 1, 2006 - The ApproachFeeling no great urgency to rush things on our approach day, we elected to sleep in until around 5:30 am. Awakening to perfectly clear skies we packed our bivy camps, ate a few cold snacks for breakfast, then began the long march towards high camp at Thumb Rock.
We followed patches of primitive trail for a short distance, but soon found ourselves on continuous snow as we began switchbacking our way up to St. Elmo Pass, at around 7,400 ft. For the first time on this trip we began to gain significant elevation, and my legs soon became aware of the 50+ pound pack on my back. A few negative thoughts floated through my head as I contemplated lugging this load 5,000 vertical feet up steep snow and ice at high altitude on Liberty Ridge. Would I have the strength? Was I up to the task? I had my doubts...
Arriving at St. Elmo Pass we were greeted with the expanse of Winthrop Glacier, bordered on the far west by Curtis Ridge. We also began to see the first glimpses of the upper portion of Willis Wall, on the north face of Rainier. Beyond Curtis Ridge lay the Carbon Glacier, which would lead us to the base of Liberty Ridge.
We moved down onto the Winthrop Glacier and began following a faint boot track headed west. A few crevasses made their appearance, but the route through appeared fairly obvious so we elected to remain un-roped for the time being. Some time later we observed what appeared to be a lone climber headed in the same direction about 1/2 mile ahead of us.
At the far end of the Winthrop Glacier we moved onto the rocky terrain forming the lower half of Curtis Ridge. Continuing a westward traverse across the rocks we eventually reached a vertical impasse on the west wall of Curtis Ridge, with the Carbon Glacier below. Here we met up with the lone climber who had been scouting around for a way down onto the Carbon. Our initial impression was that we would need to make a very long detour north to the base of the ridge in order to scoot onto the glacier, but we soon discovered a very loose and steep ramp which made its way down the west face of Curtis Ridge.
Now on the Carbon Glacier we began the trek towards the base of Liberty Ridge, clearly visible to the south. Crevasses were more abundant here than on the Winthrop Glacier, but the route still appeared relatively straightforward so we remained un-roped. The solo climber was now behind us but keeping up at a fairly steady pace.
The customary approach to Liberty Ridge traverses west around the toe of the ridge then ascends to the ridge crest from the west. But this being a fairly late season climb of Liberty Ridge, the standard approach was quite broken and menacing, so we elected to follow the better terrain on the left and hopefully gain the ridge from the east.
Our un-roped freedom came to an end upon reaching a gaping crevasse with a very thin and partially collapsed snow bridge being the only path across. Inviting the solo climber (Lubos) onto our rope seemed the logical thing to do, so we roped up and belayed each other across. Ironically it turned out that Lubos was from our home state of Utah as well, having made the trip solo after his planned partner bailed out on the trip. The ironies increased when we later learned that not only was Lubos from Utah, but we'd also crossed paths with him on two previous occasions; a Kings Peak ski tour in March, and the Wasatch Triple Traverse in May. Yet another irony occured in 2007, when Lubos was the first to arrive at the scene of an accident on the Pfeifferhorn, back in Utah.
Nearing the east face of Liberty Ridge we were temporarily distracted by a huge avalanche which pounded down the Willis Wall directly to the south. The avalanche cloud spread broadly upon hitting the Carbon Glacier, and about 20 seconds later we felt the air blast and sting of snow particles from the dying cloud. Soon after we were able to exit the Glacier onto the east slopes of Liberty Ridge, where we filled our water bottles before making a short but steep scramble up incredibly loose rock to the crest of the ridge, then onto the mostly snow-covered slopes on the west side of the ridge.
All that remained now was an uneventful climb to our camp at Thumb Rock, now visible on the skyline above. The rock appeared deceptively close, but the 2,000 vertical foot climb through steadily softening snow seemed to take forever, and it was a great relief to finally arrive at the sheltered saddle behind Thumb Rock at around 4:30pm. It came as a bit of a surprise to find the camp completely unoccupied, since we'd been told by the climbing ranger the previous day that six parties were at various points on the route.
We set to work preparing our individual bivy platforms, then spent the rest of the afternoon lazing around camp while melting snow for water. In an attempt to keep things simple I'd made the decision to forego hot meals on this trip, so dinner consisted of energy bars and jerky; Lubos' hot dehydrated meal was looking mighty tasty... Later in the afternoon another large avalanche roared down the Willis Wall just to the east. The weather had been perfect all day long with not so much as a cloud in the sky, and we hoped the fine weather would continue into our summit day. We agreed on a 4:00am start time, then settled into our respective bivy sacks for a short night of sleep.
July 2, 2006 - Summit Day and DescentI slept well early in the evening, but woke more and more frequently as the night progressed. Was that 4:00am Utah time or Washington time? We'd never really discussed this fine point. As the designated alarm clock I supposed it was up to me to decide. It was only 3:00am (Pacific) but I was restless and anxious to get the day underway, so I crawled out and gave a shout to Brian and Lubos; time to get moving.
By 3:30am we'd packed our respective camps and began the slow march up the ridge, heading left around the first rock band immediately above Thumb Rock, before regaining the ridge above. Snow conditions were ideal, perfect for step-kicking up the remains of the boot track from parties of the last day or two. We climbed steadily and soon the first hints of light began to appear in the sky to the east. Some time later I looked up and noticed a thin wisp of cloud curling over the summit of Liberty Cap above. Hmm..., hadn't seen any clouds up there yesterday...
The sun was fully up as we passed around the left side of the Black Pyramid on crumbly rock and dirt, where we found ourselves looking up the 600-800 foot long 50° ice sheet leading to the base of Liberty Cap. Ice axes were replaced by ice tools, and feeling confident in our climbing we elected to remain un-roped through this steep section; Lubos moved towards the far right side of the slope, while Brian and I selected a more direct line up the middle.
As we continued climbing we were once again distracted by the unmistakable sound of another avalanche on the Willis Wall, much closer now that we were higher on the ridge. I turned briefly to watch the expanding cloud of snow and ice as it rumbled down on our left, but my calf muscles were complaining bitterly from the continuous crampon front-pointing, motivating me to continue moving upward.
The ice sheet seemed to go on and on, and I began to tire in the thinning air. I stopped periodically to chop small boot sized ledges in the ice in an effort to give my burning calves a break, but the effort hardly seemed worth it. At one point my headlamp somehow detached from my helmet and fell to my arms, so I quickly shoved it into my jacket pocket, but apparently not securely enough; a few seconds later I heard the sound of the headlamp skittering down the slope. I shouted to Brian who was directly below me, and he made a leaning attempt to snag it with an ice tool, but just barely missed. I gave a final glance as it continued its sliding journey to the base of the Willis Wall several thousand feet below.
At last the angle slowly began to taper off, and eventually we reached moderate snowy terrain where we were able to take a break. The small wisp of cloud from earlier in the morning had now grown to completely enclose the upper portion of the mountain. A few hundred more feet of hard snow and we reached the first of several crevasses at the base of Liberty Cap; finally time to rope up.
We each took a turn or two on lead, deferring the more difficult pitches to Brian, the Alpha-Climber of our group. Visibility was now alternating between a couple of hundred feet down to near zero at times, but we were thankful that it seemed to be nothing more than a high cloud, rather than an actual storm. A final pitch of 60° ice and we arrived on a snowy ridge. We remained roped as we trudged up the ridge until there was nowhere to go but down. It could only be the summit of Liberty Cap.
Visibility was still near zero, so we began wandering in the general direction of the true summit, periodically checking map and GPS to verify our bearing. At one point we actually discussed aborting the summit attempt to begin seeking our descent route, but other than greatly reducing visibility, the cloud cap did not seem overly threatening, so we elected to keep pushing for the summit.
Snow finally gave way to rock and a short distance later we were standing on Columbia Crest, the summit of Washington, at 1:40pm and over 10 hours since leaving camp at Thumb Rock. We un-roped and removed gear, then snacked and rested for a few minutes before preparing to descend. A pair of climbers from another route popped up from the summit crater, and after talking over their plans, Lubos decided to descend with them via Disappointment Cleaver. Brian and I said our goodbyes to Lubos, then began a traverse around the summit crater in the general direction of the Emmons Glacier, our planned descent route.
Still enclosed in clouds and with virtually no visible clues, we continued relying on occasional map and GPS bearings until we eventually reached a prominent boot track which could only be the Emmons route. We followed the track down a thousand feet or so until eventually breaking out of the cloud cover. Camp Schurman could now be seen far below, still a depressingly long way off. With such a prominent track down the Emmons Glacier we once again took the calculated risk of remaining un-roped as we worked our way down through the crevasses.
We descended for a seeming eternity to the zoo-like Camp Schurman, then over the ridge and back into Glacier Basin. We managed to get a couple of nice glissades down the Inter Glacier, then completed the final three miles back to White River Trailhead in a fatigue induced trance. The climb hadn't been perfect, but Liberty Ridge had been good to us, and we savored the feeling of having returned safely from a very memorable climb on an outstanding route.