Prologue: Liberty Cap
My hands felt like blocks of wood. It was the most beautiful morning I had ever seen and I was scared of losing my fingers. For the last three days we had been pinned down by bad weather high on Mt. Rainier, the last 20 hours stuck in a shredding tent near the summit where 100 mph winds constantly threatened to rip us from the slope. Now, just before dawn on our sixth day on the mountain, we could finally see clearly across the summit plateau to our escape route.
But the wind had barely let up and in the gale I couldn’t close my pack. For the last several days every stitch of clothing I had was dripping wet in the tent, only to freeze into a semblance of steel the second I stepped outside. If I took off my mitten to buckle my pack, I was sure I would never get it on again outside. I asked Scott for help. He took off his own mitt and snapped shut the buckle.
I didn’t get frostbite. He did.
Day One: The Forecast
On Memorial Day, Scott, Chris and myself set off to tackle Mt. Rainier’s Liberty Ridge. Last year almost 9,000 people tried to climb Rainier; around half succeeded. About 90 percent of those who get to the top do so by climbing Disappointment Clever, the trade route that can resemble a Los Angeles freeway on a calm morning. The three of us had all summited by that route before. Now we planned to climb the mountain’s most celebrated line: Liberty Ridge, a steep weakness that slices up the mountain’s remote and awesome North Face. On an average year around 100 people try to climb Liberty Ridge; fatalities, unfortunately, are not uncommon.
Scott and Chris were longtime climbing partners, both veteran ski patrollers and EMTs. A year earlier they had tried to gain the ridge only to be turned back by bad weather before getting on the route. I had never climbed with them before but our experience in the Sierra and Cascades seemed congruent.
Chris had done most of the planning, which including carrying enough food and fuel to melt snow for water for five to six days in case bad weather kept us tent bound for a day or two. Chris, Scott told me when I first met him, tends to be too optimistic.
On Saturday I had driven from San Francisco to Reno to rendezvous with Scott and Chris. The next morning we drove to Rainier and checked in at the ranger station.
Liberty Ridge is a great route, a climbing ranger began, but it’s not in great shape. He warned us that almost a foot of snow had fallen in the last week and that possible storms were forecast for the next week.
Monday was clear and warm. The White River parking lot was crowded and the Glacier Basin trail busy with people headed up the Inter Glacier to Camp Schurman, where the Emmons Glacier route starts—our planned way off the summit. Instead of heading up the Inter Glacier we said goodbye to the masses and humped our 40 pound packs up St. Elmo’s pass, across the Winthrop Glacier and onto the toe of Curtis Ridge, where we had stunning views of Rainier’s North Face—and frequent avalanches thundering off the sheer wall.
We had seen no one else since crossing the pass but followed a recent snowshoe track across the Winthrop until it abruptly stopped near Curtis Ridge—a reminder of how fast things can disappear on Rainier.
Day Two: The Ridge
At dawn we roped up above the Carbon Glacier at around 7,000 feet. I led off, inching over snow bridges and skirting crevasses at every turn. We were still on the glacier when the sun came out. Soon it felt like we were crossing a frying pan.
The slopes leading onto Liberty Ridge were deep in snow. At times we wallowed up to our waists, crawling up toward Thumb Rock at 10,500 feet. After more than 13 hours of slogging I reached the rock and let out a celebratory shout. The three of us set up camp and enjoyed the sweeping views as the sun set and the lights of Seattle lit the horizon. Earlier in the day we had seen a two-person team following our steps through the Carbon but late in the day they retreated back down the glacier.
It turned out to be a smart move.
Day Three: The First Storm
We left the tent before first light, climbing a snowy ramp to the left of the rock. It was another day of strenuous exertion, although the weather was cooler and overcast. After seven hours I was around 13,000 feet. Clouds swallowed up the view below us; then above us as well. At noon it started to snow. I began to search for a bivy site, finding an overhang on the ridge that looked like it could offer shelter from rockfall and avalanches.
I started chopping a platform into the ridge. Scott and Chris joined me but the snow soon yielded to rock and ice and we could only scrape off a couple of steep steps onto which to pitch our tent: a Mountain Hardwear Kiva, a five-sided floorless teepee. The tent is sturdy but requires a lot of effort to set up because of its large footprint and the need to seal its walls by piling snow on the flaps.
Several feet of powder fell that night. The upslope tent wall darkened and sagged with snow, crowding us off the ridge and forcing us to screw ourselves into contortionist positions in our sleeping bags. Every couple of hours, someone had to venture outside to shovel off the tent.
The storm lasted 18 hours.
Day Four: Another Bivy
In the morning the weather let up and we took off. Conditions were worse than before. The snow was deep and loose and I found it impossible to gain any altitude. I’d swing an ice tool into the powder and kick in my crampons and immediately sink back into the snow like quick sand. I tried traversing across the slope but every step cost me elevation. It seemed impossible to make any progress. I began to contemplate the unthinkable: retreating. Downclimbing thousands of feet of steep, unconsolidated snow filled me with terror but I couldn’t think of an alternative. Scuttling my way across the slope, I finally hit a patch of wind scoured snow. I swung a tool and my pick actually stuck. At last, I could move up.
We reached the bergschrund on the Liberty Cap Glacier. I climbed a steep snow bridge and belayed Scott and Chris up to me. We threaded our way through a crevasse field and soloed up a pitch of easy ice climbing. Swinging my tools into bomber ice, I realized I was enjoying the climbing for the first time on the trip. The ice gave way to firm snow and then more loose snow. Visibility was poor and we talked about the importance of sticking together. But before long I had lost sight of Scott and Chris below me. My altimeter put us just below 14,000 feet. It began snowing.
The lower slope disappeared from sight. Snow filled my tracks. My partners were carrying the stove and the tent. If they didn’t find me I was going to have an ugly night. I started hacking out a platform.
I heard shouts. I shouted back. I didn’t see anything for a long time and kept digging. Eventually, I saw a helmet bobbing up toward me. Or at least I thought I did until it vanished in the mists. Then I saw it again. It was Scott, followed by Chris.
Our bivy spot was more comfortable than the last one but my down sleeping bag was sopping wet. Pulling the bag over my head I could see through the thin fabric, small clumps of damp feathers offering little warmth. My clothes, too, were soaked. I shivered uncontrollably through much of the night, warming up only when it was my turn to go outside and shovel snow off the tent.
Day Five: Another Whiteout
By dawn it had stopped snowing but we still had no visibility. We decided to keep climbing, since we were only a couple of hundred feet below the summit of Liberty Cap and could navigate by compass east to the true summit of Columbia Crest and from there find out way to the Emmons Glacier descent.
I climbed in the whiteout until the slope didn’t seem to go any higher. Then we tried following the compass but kept cliffing out. Staying above the Willis Wall was my main goal but I couldn’t find any safe passage to the east. Crevasses lurked everywhere. Scott fell through a snow bridge up to his waist with his legs draggling free below him. Chris pulled him out.
After wandering around for two hours dodging crevasses it was clear we had been moving in circles. All three of us were plastered in rime, looking like extras from an artic adventure movie, as if someone had turned a firehose on us and then stuck us in a deep freeze. I had to snap icicles off my eyelashes to see.
It was time to hunker down again. It was 8 am.
We spent the day waiting for visibility to improve as a steady wind beat the sides of the tent like a drum. Our packs and gear were frozen into weird, stiff shapes in the corners. Light streamed into the tent from crampon and shovel holes we had accidentally punched into the fabric over the last couple of days. By midday the tent actually got warm. Then it turned cold once more. Scott’s air mattress had a leak.
“I’m never going climbing again,” Scott said from deep in his sleeping bag. “There hasn’t been one fun moment on this trip. This is crazy. It’s selfish and pointless.”
Late in the day Chris poked his out head out of the tent and whooped: The clouds scudded away enough to reveal that we were facing due east, looking straight at the col between Liberty Cap and Columbia Crest. We could see our escape.
But as the visibility got better the wind got worse. We decided to wait for a lull, then go for it. By 8 pm the wind was blasting stronger than ever. The tent was constantly whacked by gusts, which would occasionally subside, then return in even greater fury, as if some malevolent god were slapping our puny shelter only to pause to get our attention before beginning another assault. Spindrift swirled inside the tent.
I stared at a finger-sized tear above Scott’s head, expecting the see the fabric split in two at any moment. Behind my head the tent wall kept throbbing, like something ready to explode. I ducked my head into my damp bag.
Hours passed. When I peered out from my cocoon with one eye I saw that snow covered my bag. I pulled my head out and noticed that there was a large snowdrift inside the tent inching its way toward me from where the flap was blowing loose in the breeze.
We have a breach, I yelled.
With my gloveless hands I held down the wall, while Chris went outside and packed snow on the tent edge. I spent the next couple of hours watching the snow weighing the tent flaps down bouncing up and down in the wind. Another flap blew up. This time Scott held the breach, while I went outside and shoveled.
The sky was completely clear, a half moon lighting the blindingly white col and stars glittering in the sky like a million promises. It would be a beautiful summit day.
Day Six: Escape
At 4 am we left the tent in a still savage wind. My mitts were so misshaped by the cold that doing almost anything in them was impossible. Even just holding an ice tool was an ordeal. I took them off several times as we were packing up. Finally, Scott had to help me secure my pack and we were off.
Our bivy site turned out to be perched a couple of hundred feet below the summit of Liberty Cap. The walk across the wind-blasted summit plateau was only about half a mile. As we stepped over strange, wind-carved ice ridges toward a blood orange sun rising in the distance I felt euphoric as if I were the first person to set foot on another world. I wanted to stop and soak in the incredible scenery but Chris and Scott kept moving.
We traversed under the volcanic cone of Columbia Crest and picked our way through a serac field until we could drop onto the Emmons Glacier. The wind fell away and we shed clothes as we descended thousands of feet.
Scott showed me his hands: The fingertips were gray. He said it felt like someone was bashing them with a hammer. He had frostbite.
We met a rope team climbing up the glacier—the first people we had seen in four days. At Camp Schurman, Scott used the emergency phone to call the ranger station. A ranger advised him to visit an emergency room as soon as possible.
We climbed a small ridge and dropped down the Inter Glacier where we met several large parties coming up. People asked us what we had been climbing. We said Liberty Ridge and briefly mentioned some of the difficulties. One woman told Scott that he should be very proud to have finished the route in such conditions.
I didn't feel proud, he told me later. I felt like a jackass.
By 1 pm we were at the car, drinking beer. Scott’s fingers had turned black and blistered. Now it was my turn to help him unzip his pack. He dumped out his climbing gear and gave it to me.
Take it, he said. I don’t want it.
Epilogue: The Toll
We drove to an emergency room in Yakima, where a doctor diagnosed moderate to severe frostbite on all of Scott’s fingers and three toes, bandaged up the digits and told him to visit his own doctor once he got home. Chris and I took turns behind the wheel until we got too tired to drive and pulled into a motel somewhere in Oregon. We joked about camping next to the ice machine so we could melt water.
On Sunday we reached Reno and dropped Chris off. At Scott’s place he gave me a big hug and then I drove home in a daze.
The next day Scott was admitted to a hospital after developing Rhabdomyolysis. Before long he was back home but his ordeal was just beginning. Three weeks later I got this email from him:
“As I write this I am on pain medication and my fingers are sore. I pray this will make sense.
“Trapped on top of Mt Rainier for 3 days made me realize how really blessed I am. My decision to stop climbing (at that level) had nothing to do with my injuries. I realized that life is too precious and short and that I want to spend more time with the ones I love. . .
“If I can continue to fight infection and ward off gang green I will probably not lose any fingers or toes. Doctors have been able to debreed off all dead tissue to expose vibrant tissue below. I will have life long complications that I should be able to compensate for. Feeling and sensation in all 20 digits has yet to return fully, however, that process can take up to 2 years. Finger and toenails might be a thing of the past for me. And most of all my spirits are high (sometimes chemically). All in all, I have proven the early prognosis wrong. Most Doctors thought I would need some amputation surgery.”