At 1:40 a.m., with more hope than encouragement, we set off from Camp Schurman for our summit bid. We knew that “a system” was predicted to continue over the area today, but we crossed our cold fingers that it would not unleash with enough force to prevent our two 4-person rope teams to get to Columbia Crest and down safely.
Things started out well enough. Our rope teams got into a good rhythm early on. It had been cold enough at the start to begin the climb with major insulation up top, but it took only a few minutes of moving along before it was time to shed a layer. The snow was not as packed as we would have liked, at least at lower elevation. Our headlamps pierced a dark morning. The light illuminated terrain having the texture of curdled cottage cheese, lending an eerie aspect to the scene. But despite a few promising hours on the ascent, no one would summit Rainier from this side of the mountain today.
Back to the Beginning
Mt. Rainier from White River Campground
After months of planning, with member Joe White doing the heavy lifting, the California Mountaineering Club had put together a Cascades outing, the objectives being Mt. Rainier via the Emmons Glacier route and Mt. Shuksan via the Sulphide Glacier route. We had 8 members on board, 2 of whom would have to head back home after Rainier. Tent mate and team gear assignments were made and a check list of individual gear items sent out.
In March, most of those on the trip spent a weekend at Rock Creek Canyon in the Eastern Sierra Nevada practicing roped snow travel and setting up Z and C pulley systems for crevasse rescue.
The plan was to meet at the White River Campground on Friday, July 10. Most of us flew to Seattle on the 9th, over-nighted, then car-pooled in rental vehicles to the campground. Joe and Ron had begun their Cascade adventure a couple of days earlier than the rest of us. They endured a long day to summit Mt. Adams the day before meeting us at White River.
White River Campground is a car campground with full facilities in a beautiful setting. I wandered across the river where you could get a real good look at Rainier. As it turned out, the only time I would see its summit was from afar.
Intermediate Camp: Glacier Basin
The plan was to move from White River Campground (4,400’) to Glacier Basin Camp on Saturday and then to Camp Schurman on Sunday. The first leg was a relatively easy 3.3 mile ascent with 1,600’ of gain to Glacier Basin Camp (6,000’). At this camp, we encountered an abrasive park volunteer who barked orders about camp rules that nobody had given any indication of breaking. The man plainly needed either a personality transplant or a new position.
Little bruin at Glacier Basin Camp
Much friendlier was a bear cub apparently separated from his mother who kept approaching our campsite looking for the obvious. We immediately ran our food bags up the metal hanging poles provided for that purpose and eventually the little bruin retreated. In the late afternoon, we had a session to go over C pulley construction again. All the while, crowds of buffed Cascades mosquitos honed in on exposed skin and bit through clothing to get their blood repast. Those who had brought headnets found that carrying the extra weight had been worthwhile!
High Camp: Schurman
The next morning we hoisted, with audible sighs, our hefty packs, for the long trek to Camp Schurman (9,460’) on the NE side of Rainier. From Glacier Basin, there is a climber’s path up the right side of the creek that leads to the snout of what is called the Inter Glacier (6,800’). At the top of this small glacier we headed left toward the once popular Camp Curtis and then descended onto the massive Emmons Glacier, traveling in two 4-person rope teams. The views upon reaching the glacier helped to compensate for the weight of our packs.
The clearest it ever got at Camp Schurman
As we marched into Camp Schurman, a massive ranger greeted us courteously. We indicated to our power ranger that we figured to pitch our camp low rather than high in the area figuring that would minimize exposure to the wind. His comment was that, for now, “low” was where the least wind was, but it could change any moment. And that turned out to be the case.
Our tents at Camp Schurman
The Stars and Stripes at Camp Schurman
We set up camp, paying special attention to anchoring the tents securely. Regretful is the climber who has never been to Camp Schurman and fails to bring a camera. That day, we got to see Rainier’s summit rim only briefly before the clouds enveloped it. The best views of the area were right outside the ranger’s cabin and outhouse above the main camp area. Speaking of outhouses, the usual stench was masked by an ammonia treatment that made your eyes water. A nice touch was the hand cleansing gel dispenser in this john.
View from Camp Schurman, July 12, 2009
We found a good glacial run-off water source and so didn’t need to waste time and fuel melting snow. We had an early dinner since wake- up tomorrow would be midnight with a 1 a.m. start. The ropes were set in position to tie into in the morning and everyone worked a little on his summit pack. My down parka would be coming with me, I knew that. Tomorrow promised to be pretty damned frigid.
Nice big opening seen from Camp Schurman
Climbers near crevasse below Camp Schurman
The only damper to my excitement was a nasty stomach ailment that had started bothering me on the way up to high camp. It increased in severity during the few hours spent inside the tent trying to sleep before the midnight wake-up.
That it stays daylight until about 9 p.m. at this latitude never helps in trying to get to sleep early. Plus, the intermittent sounds of a big glacier doing its moaning and crackling can also be a distraction from sleep. This is all topped off by the constant “pop, pop, pop” of the energized nocturnal wind banging against the tent fabric. I realized that if my tent mate Ben, had been a snorer - which he wasn’t – it wouldn’t have mattered one bit.
The Mountain Turns Down All Comers
When I rolled out of the tent in the morning, I felt really crappy. But who hasn’t known the feeling before of running at less than 100% on summit day and yet managing to pull through. I’ve always figured I’d rather turn back on the ascent than make a decision at base camp to not even try.
Conditions on the morning of summit attempt
Getting ready for summit attempt
Weather conditions didn’t help my physical state. It was frigid with limited visibility. We got off at 1:40 a.m. hoping against hope that the weather would not intensify. Our hopes were buoyed for a few hours. We were making steady progress even though the weather kept picking up little by little. Then my time came. We were only at 11,500 feet and what later turned out be a stomach virus caused me to work through in my mind the probability of climbing 3,000 feet further and then descending in increasingly severe weather. I put the odds against myself and told the rope leader I should turn around. As it turned out, another member of our party had been experiencing light-headedness and it was decided he should turn around as well.
In the short time it took for both rope teams to huddle about our options at that point, we all started frosting over, then commenced transitioning to icicles. Two of our team members, Brian and John, who had summited Rainier before (Brian on this very route), graciously volunteered to return to camp with me and Justin. The four of us tied in to one rope and started back down. The other four continued up.
Paul and Ron on Emmons glacier route, 7.13.09
On the descent, we came upon an ascending party that had a member who was not feeling well. We invited her to tie into our rope and thus her group was able to continue.
Rope team that got to 13,000' on descent
Our descent was uneventful. Before we reached camp, daylight broke and we were able to see for the first time the terrain we had ascended. Especially intriguing to see was that icy blue hue coloring the interior walls of the massive crevasses on the route.
Line of crevasses below Camp Schurman
Ben tries to keep warm as we break camp
Back at camp, the wind picked up big time easily gusting to 60 mph. Everyone who was in camp jumped into his tent and stayed there. I managed to rest a bit although my virus would stay with me for the next few days. Given conditions down at this elevation, it didn’t surprise when I heard our second rope team coming back into camp. They had gotten to about 13,000’ and realized that continuing was not consistent with a healthy lifestyle. But they had given it more than a good try.
The Rest of It
Fortunately, the wind moderated to sub-gale force in the late morning and we were able to start breaking camp. Once packed, we got into our rope teams and began the steady plodding back to Glacier Basin Camp and on to White River Campground. The tedium of roped travel was nicely interrupted by being able to glissade a portion of the descent starting at a point where crevasses were not an issue. One team unroped and its members glissaded individually, while my team stayed tied in and we glissaded as a group.
(This video depicts when conditions had improved enough so that we could break camp)
We took a break at Glacier Basin Camp and collected approach shoes and other items that it hadn’t been necessary to take to Camp Schurman. Then it was time once again to heave the packs for the final push to the trail head. I was last to arrive at White River Campground, still feeling mightly the effects of my stomach virus.
We made the drive back to Seattle and eagerly rushed for the showers in our motel rooms and later a much anticipated non freeze-dried meal. The next day would be a rest day in Seattle (REI time at the magnificent parent store and some sightseeing in this beautiful city) and then we would drive north to North Cascades National Park to attempt that glorious pyramid- shaped peak, Mount Shuksan.
Mt. Shuskan, Northern Cascades
At this point, although Rainier had declined our visit, no one was complaining about lack of challenge and adventure.