In August 2010, we flew out to Seattle to have a go at Mt. Rainier. We'd originally planned to attempt Rainier in 2011, but our other plans for August fell through and then we found out that conditions on the mountain were unusually good for this late in the season. It was pretty spur-of-the-moment, but we'd done some crevasse-rescue training already this year and were in good shape after training for Mt. Elbert. Still, I'd been wary of Mt. Rainier for several years, having read numerous hair-raising trip reports and accounts of dramatic rescues. Lots of people attempt to climb the volcano each summer, but the success rate is only about 50% and there have been many deaths over the years. As of this writing, three climbers have died on Rainier in 2010. Most of the summit attempts are made by guided parties on the Disappointment Cleaver route. We wanted to do it on our own and on a somewhat less-traveled route. We looked at the Fuhrer Finger as an option, but ultimately decided on the Emmons/Winthrop Glacier route. There has been one fatality on the Emmons/Winthrop in 2010 -- a climber being killed when a member of his rope-team slipped and pulled the whole party into a crevasse.
The trip started off a bit bumpy. Our flight to Seattle was oversold and delayed. We only had a limited amount of time to land in Seattle, grab stove-fuel and bear spray at REI and then drive to the ranger station in Mt. Rainier National Park to register for our climb and buy permits. We wasted time at the airport waiting for a Hertz shuttle bus, only to find out that the rental area was right there on site. Then REI was sold out of bear spray. Finally, we arrived at the ranger station a half hour before it closed, only to get stuck in line behind a couple of backpackers from Montana who apparently hadn't taken the time to plan out their hiking trip before showing up at the park. The endlessly patient ranger was forced to pore over the park map with them trying to help them figure out where to go. To make matters worse, it turned out to be No Fee weekend at the park, which meant that every campground within miles was full.
After obtaining our permits, we drove around on Forest Service roads for a while, trying to find a decent place to pitch the tent. Eventually we found what was basically little more than a wide shoulder on a hill, but big enough to park the rental car and put the tent behind it. We started organizing our gear, which we'd been forced to jam into two huge suitcases for the flight. By the time we finished that and ate dinner, it was pushing ten o'clock and we knew we had to be hiking before dawn to avoid the heat of the day. Lugging heavy packs uphill in August while wearing heavy mountaineering boots would have destroyed our feet. At that point, we decided we might as well just start hiking, get up the Inter Glacier early and spend the rest of the day sleeping as well as we could in the tent.
We got to the trailhead around 11 pm (4350 ft). We had woken at 5 a.m. for our flight to Seattle, so we were starting to feel quite tired. I was also fairly unhappy about hiking through dense forest at night without bear spray, especially after seeing all the bear warning signs everywhere. There are no grizzlies in Mt. Rainier National Park, but there are plenty of black bears. There was no way around it, though, so we just started marching.
We hiked about 3.5 miles uphill to a campground with a large warning sign about black bear activity in the area. This made me hike a little faster. After the campground, the maintained trail ended and the unofficial climber's trail began. We climbed up onto the glacial moraine, gained a snowfield and then stopped to melt some snow. After refilling our water bottles, we headed toward the Inter Glacier, which we could see gleaming dimly in the moonless night.
Dawn on the Inter
The dawn sun flamed red behind the low hills at our backs as we climbed steep crunchy snow for fifteen hundred feet. We'd intended to stop near Camp Curtis at around 8,650 ft, but instead camped at 8,100ft near some rocks, having gained 3,750 feet in 6 miles from the trailhead. We were tired by then and feared finding crowds further up. Bill dug a tent platform and pitched the tent while I dug down for fresh snow and boiled endless pots of it for drinking-water and for making dinner. Then we were able to lie down with the tent door open and doze for 3-4 hours. The ambient temperature hovered in the mid forties so we were comfortable despite full sun in a brilliant blue sky. After watching several parties ascend and descend the glacier very late in the day, we decided that an alpine start wasn't necessary.
We got a good night's sleep, but woke to find that a mouse had chewed into the tent and eaten part of Bill's trail mix. We had left all the food easily accessible, not expecting to encounter any critters half-way up a glacier. That was a mistake. There are more living things up on the glaciers than you would expect. Bees and flies buzzed us continuously. To my great delight, a humming bird flew into camp that morning, investigated the brightly colored flags on our bamboo wands and then zoomed off again.
After a breakfast of granola and dried milk reconstituted with melted snow, we broke camp and continued upward. A few small exposed crevasses split the Inter Glacier, but it was generally pretty mellow. At the top of the Inter Glacier, we traversed onto a loose rocky ridge and peered down the other side onto the Emmons Glacier, which was the next part of our route. The Emmons Glacier has the largest surface area of any glacier in the contiguous United States. We stood above it for quite a while staring down onto what looked like a sea of frozen waves cascading down the mountain. The snout of the glacier buckled into the valley far below us, dark blue and split by hundreds of deep crevasses. Looking up-glacier, I saw many gaping chasms, with snow-bridges sagging across their middles.
We descended the ridge until we were able to step onto the Emmons glacier. A moat had formed where the glacier pushed up against the crumbling cliffs and lots of obvious recent rockfall lay strewn on the ice. At that point we could see a melted-out boot track leading up to Camp Shurman and we also saw two climbers going up ahead of us. That calmed my nerves because I figured that if they didn't punch through any of the snow bridges, neither would we. Close to Camp Shurman, there was one long traverse above a deep blue crevasse, where an unarrested slip would have resulted in serious injury or death. However, the snow was in good condition and we felt secure.
We stopped at Camp Shurman, where an old wooden ranger hut perched on a snow-free ridge above several rock-ringed campsites. We had hoped to speak to a climbing ranger but there were none around. Two other parties had set up camp on the ridge and we talked to them to find out when they planned to ascend. We saw two rope-teams descending the glacier and waited for them to arrive so that we could get the word on the current route conditions. They warned us that the existing boot-pack was no longer safe due to one snow bridge being on the point of collapse. They had found a way around it and left wands to mark the detour. After talking to them for a while, we continued up for 300 feet to reach Emmons Flats at approximately 9800 ft.
High Camp on Emmons Flats
Emmons Flats is just a broad, flat-ish spot on the Emmons Glacier. We probed for crevasses, marked a safe perimeter with our bamboo wands, then once again set about digging a tent platform and melting snow. We had read about the violent winds that sometimes scream across Emmons Flats, so we built our walls a little higher than usual and buried deep snow anchors for the tent. Before going to bed, we debated whether or not there might be any mice living that high up on the glacier. In the end, we decided to hang our food bags from an interior tent pole, just in case. After rehydrating and refueling, we crawled into our sleeping bags and listened to ice crash down the unstable Winthrop Glacier ice-falls.
After sleeping for three or four hours, we woke at midnight for the summit push. We drank coffee, ate granola, roped up, and left the tent a little before 2 a.m. The ambient air temp was around freezing, with a light breeze.
Above Emmons Flats, the route ascends a narrow glacial ridge called The Corridor. The Corridor was pitted with many crevasses, large and small. We came upon a snow bridge that several people had punched through and we avoided it on the left. Bill took the lead for the first half of the route. Our theory was that since he outweighs me by fifty pounds, he would be more likely to punch through and in that case it would be easier for me to stop his fall if he was uphill from me.
At 11,400ft, we found the wands left by the party we had talked to at Camp Shurman. We detoured to climber's left and tried to follow the scratchings of their crampons on the hard snow. Things got confusing then. Bill found what he thought was the original bootpack and followed it to a collapsed snow bridge.
Dawn high on the Emmons
After some fudging around, we decided it would be safe to descend into the crevasse and climb the short but steep wall on the other side IF we belayed the whole thing with a picket. We started to bang in a picket about twenty feet back from the crevasse and after just a few inches it suddenly punched into an air-hole, indicating that we were both standing on a fairly thin snow bridge. We retreated rapidly and decided to descend back to a wand we had noticed about 200ft below. We then tried to make our way out onto the Winthrop Glacier, but got stymied by another large crevasse. When we tried to end-run it, we got stranded on a steep snow-wall and had to turn around.
Crevasses on the Winthrop
At this point, Bill was fed-up with route-finding, so I took the lead for a while. We descended about two hundred feet, crashing back down through endless rows of the sharp, blade-like snow formations called neve penitente. We were finally able to cross the large crevasse on a disturbingly narrow snow bridge and gain the Winthrop Glacier, at which point I was ecstatic to find the original bootpack again. From then on, things were fairly uneventful. At around 13,500ft, we did an end-run around the huge bergschrund at the top of the Winthrop, and pushed on for the summit.
After all the route-finding issues, we arrived on top quite a bit later than we wanted to and paused only for a couple of quick summit pics. Then we turned right around and headed down.
Getting down wasn't necessarily easy. We were tired, of course, having climbed another 4500ft, but a greater concern was the condition of the snow bridges, which had had time to soften in the sun. We crossed each one very carefully and with great trepidation. I led all the way down, on the theory that it would be easier for Bill to arrest me from an uphill stance than for me to arrest him.
I was quite dehydrated and running out of steam, so we stopped after a couple of hours to melt some snow and refuel. The strain of crossing all the suspect snow-bridges wore me out mentally. In a couple of places, we were so concerned that Bill lay down on his axe ready to arrest my fall while I crossed. We had a few route-finding issues, because we didn't feel that the original bootpack was safe. We ended up retracing our original detour. This meant some pretty awful traversing of steep neve penitente. The problem with neve penitente is that a) it shatters beneath your boots and b) it cuts you like glass if you fall into it. We ended up traversing on our frontpoints. Of course the traverse was done above a large crevasse, just to keep things interesting.
Bleeding on my axe
We couldn't relax our vigilance until we were back inside the wanded perimeter of our high camp. Eventually we made it back, feeling both mentally and physically exhausted. To our dismay, we found that a mouse had come into camp and ripped our trash bag to pieces, scattering stove fuel, empty Mountain House bags, Power Gel wrappers and everything else across the snow. Since much of the debris was outside the wands, we had to stay on rope to get it all gathered up. The wind had come up and it was quite cold. After dealing with the trash and putting on some more clothes, we sat inside the tent melting water and cooking dinner in the vestibule and, once that was behind us, we both went immediately to sleep.
After a good night's sleep, we broke camp and began the long descent back to the parking lot.
Coming off the Inter Glacier, we spotted two huge white mountain goats and stopped to watch them for a while. Once back on solid ground, we took a break to refuel, rehydrate and readjust our packs and clothing, then begin the long hike that would take us back down the glacial moraine and through sub-alpine and alpine forest. The terrain went from snow and ice to rocks and pumice ridges to alpine meadows full of brilliant wild-flowers to dense, old-growth forest with cascading waterfalls. And yes, we did run into a black bear and I was not amused. Luckily, he did nothing more than pause to give me a worried look as I came to a screeching halt on the trail.
You'd be surprised how fast I can hike under a full alpine load after seeing a bear . . . .
Back at the rental car: beat!