Stats/IntroMount Rainier (14411’) – highest point in the state of Washington
June 17-21, 2006
~ 19 miles RT, 10600’ gain
Via Emmons Glacier
Participants: Mike Teger, Crystal Shaw, Darin Baker, Cynthia Hunt, Greg Long, and Kevin Baker
Ever since I began my quest of climbing all of the state highpoints I have dreamed of one day climbing Rainier. The opportunity to climb it presented itself after completing the Colorado Mountain Club’s High Altitude Mountaineering Seminar (HAMS) through the course of the winter with the Pikes Peak group. I had yet to be exposed to glacier travel, so Rainier would be a fine introduction! The group was set with 3 students and 3 instructors and it worked out well.
Day 1-Saturday, June 17We left DIA early Saturday morning hoping to break up the arduous climb to the summit into 3 days with a rest day in between. Our plane flew right over Rainier as it basked in the morning sun above the clouds loaded with snow. This was a good sign. We secured our rental cars at Sea-Tac airport and enjoyed the pleasant drive through lush, dense forests and farmland to the White River ranger station. We checked in and the ranger informed us that the Emmons Glacier was in great shape as the mountain had experienced above normal snowfall. The crevasse and avalanche dangers were minimal at this point.
In order to lessen the stress on our bodies with our heavy packs, we broke up the climb to Camp Schurman into two days. Our goal for Saturday was to climb to the toe of the Interglacier just above Glacier Basin. After an hour or so of getting our gear in order, we set off at 3:30pm. My pack probably weighed somewhere around 55-60 pounds, so I was glad that the initial climb to the base of the Interglacier would be a gentle climb of 4 miles. We took a nice, easy pace following the White River through the lush forest, hitting continuous snow on the trail at around 5500’. The trail was well packed by all the traffic from dayhikers and skiers, so we were glad we left the snowshoes at home. About halfway into the hike we were rewarded with our first view of Rainier.
We decided to setup camp at around 6000’ a short ways below the beginning of the Interglacier. I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep the first night even though we were camping below the elevation of Colorado Springs.
Day 2-Sunday, June 18Sunday was a fairly easy day as we climbed the moderate slopes of the Interglacier to Curtis Ridge and then down to Camp Schurman. We only spotted one crevasse here and probably could have gotten by without roping up, but it was good to get the practice. There were many glissade and ski tracks on the glacier as it was in excellent shape. We left at 7:35am and cached some of our gear a ways above our campsite.
The day quickly warmed as the glacier turned into a sauna about halfway up. We were relieved on and off by passing clouds. We made good time up the Interglacier and got our first unobstructed views of our route as we crested Curtis Ridge. My jaw dropped as the views of our route unfolded. It’s hard to believe the Emmons is the easiest route!
The descent off the backside of Curtis Ridge was annoying as we were scree surfing with our crampons on, but we were soon back on snow. We crossed a couple minor crevasses just below Schurman and arrived at 12:30pm. This gave us plenty of time to relax as we awaited other teams to descend and pack out at the end of the weekend. This strategy paid off as we only had to dig out one site for our tents. It was interesting watching parties descending the Emmons as it looked like a procession of ants making slow progress in a sea of white. It was apparent that this climb was going to be a beast as many climbers were pretty wasted upon arrival to Schurman.
Day 3-Monday, June 19I slept much better for night two as once again the weather continued to hold and the winds were not a factor. The agenda for Monday was to experience what it is like in a crevasse and practice our prussiking skills in the unlikely event of a fall into a crevasse. We choose a crevasse on the Winthrop Glacier just below camp. We each took turns rappelling off the stable lip down the crevasse about 15-20’.
It was actually warmer in the crevasse as it was pretty windy on the glacier. The prusik up the rope was pretty tough even after dropping my pack on the line. Climbing over the lip of the crevasse took multiple efforts before I finally rolled over the top of it. This was an excellent learning experience for all of us since Colorado doesn’t have any crevasses to practice in!
Monday afternoon we rested and ate an early dinner in anticipation of a 12am departure for the summit. The winds continued to howl throughout the evening as doubts crept into my mind as to whether or not we would give it a shot. I probably slept less than 1 hour due to the winds and the anticipation of the climb. The wind did let up some just prior to our 11pm alarm, so that gave me some hope about our odds
Day 4-Tuesday, June 20As always, it took longer for us to get ready in the dark than anticipated, and we were off at 12:30am. It was very difficult to get into any sort of rhythm as the route had frozen footprints all over the place. I started out with most of my clothes on and soon regretted that as I was quickly warming up. I got rid of the down coat at our first break and felt much better.
A couple hours into our climb, we began an ascending traverse to climber’s right that just didn’t feel right. We followed tracks that turned out to lead us way off route just above a huge crevasse with a lot of air below. The steps cut into this traverse were not very wide, so a fall by anyone here would be bad news for the entire rope team. Mike quickly turned us around and after some looking around in the dark with our headlamps, we found the correct route. This cost us about an hour, but it looked like the weather was going to hold other than the wind.
We continued to make slow but steady progress up the Emmons as the slope would not relent. I choose to use the french technique most of the way, switching my lead foot to keep my calves from getting hammered. The duck walk seemed to take too much out of me. The steepest part of the climb was a 15-30’ step of about 60 degree snow in which I just used my axe as an ice tool. This was straightforward but would require our attention on the descent. The crevasse crossings were minimal as the heavy snows of the winter blanketed most of them. There was one crossing in which the bridge had developed a crack. We had heard of a team who had a bridge collapse on them, so this might have been the one. The snow was in great shape for us, so we didn’t have any issues. Twilight soon arrived as this brought a false hope that we were getting close to the crater rim.
Our progress seemed to wane as every time I looked at my GPS we had only climbed 200’ or so. I quit broadcasting the elevation to the team as it was depressing me!
The big mistake I made on this climb was my lack of attention to hydrating and eating. Around 13K’, my water bladder plugged up and I was too lazy to ask for a break to fish out my extra Gatorade bottle from my pack. I drank about 1 liter of Cytomax on the way up, way too little for such a challenging climb. As a result, I soon began to drag as the slope would not relent. Greg wisely kept us going as the winds started to get pretty strong the higher we got. There was no protection from the winds as the gusts were probably around 50mph. After what seemed an eternity, Greg announced that the crater rim was now in view! The light reflecting off the glacier played tricks on us as the rim appeared to be much closer than it was. I could now see that we were about as high as nearby sub-summit Liberty Cap and we finally crested the crater rim at 8am. We were rewarded with a wind shadow inside the rim and took a long break to hydrate and eat. The views from this vantage point were amazing as we could see Mt Adams and Mt St Helens in the distance. A group of guides were making there way across the crater rim from the standard route as we ate.
I fixed my water bladder problem and was now ready for the short stroll to the true summit of Rainier, Columbia Crest. The short 5 minute stroll to the summit was pure joy as I knew the worst was over. We were elated to have the opportunity to grace the summit of such an awesome place.
I arrived at 8:45am and was greeted by some pretty stiff gusts. The guides arrived in time for a group photo of us and after some pics and soaking up the views, we headed back down to where we crested the rim. I knew the descent was not going to be fun as the wind would not relent. I found the summit register just below the summit on the trail heading down to the bottom of the crater. There were quite a few names in the last few days as this long weather window was uncommon.
We headed down at 9:36 as I was not looking forward to round two with the wind. Rope management was quite a bit harder on the descent as the switchbacks made it difficult to keep the rope taut. We adopted a slow pace on the descent as everyone was tired and we didn’t need a fall. The cracked snow bridge looked like it would break soon, but we didn’t have any issues on it. We came across a guided team of 11 making there way up about halfway down and Mike advised them to not make the same mistake we did. At the steep step, we placed a picket for added protection on the down climb. The final 2 hours of the descent were brutal for me as my energy waned. I stumbled down the maze of footprints on the corridor as some minor blisters began to develop. The drunken sailor walk was a common theme here. Camp Schurman finally came into view and we arrived at 2:05. I took a long nap, relishing in the fact that the tough stuff was over!
Day 5-Wednesday, June 21Wednesday we woke up late and packed out at our leisure. I was glad we decided to stay another night as a one day descent would have been brutal. We left camp at 9am and climbed to Curtis Ridge, eagerly awaiting the long glissade. The Interglacier was not very steep and the snow was soft, but we were able to pick up speed by following the tracks of previous climbers. It felt like a luge run in spots and was a blast as we coasted over 2000’ down the Interglacier to within ¼ mile of our cache in about 15 minutes.
We changed into shorts at our cache and enjoyed the last 4 miles of our adventure. My pack seemed to weigh even more than the hike in, but I knew that I would soon be enjoying real food! We arrived back at our cars at 1:15pm, relieved to have successfully graced the slopes of mighty Rainier. Even with the excellent weather we were blessed with, I would consider Rainier to be the toughest climb I have ever done. This might be slightly skewed by the fact that I didn’t take care of myself like I normally do on summit day, but it indeed was a big challenge. What a mountain!