I could see the wheels turning in Pete’s head as I asked him if he would join me.
“Let’s talk later.” he eventually said, and went back upstairs to work in the climbing department of Mountain Chalet. We didn’t have time to talk about it at the moment, the store was busy with skiers, runners, and casual shoppers.
A few hours later Pete brought a map of Mt. Rainier and began to lay out a plan to climb Liberty Ridge in a day.
Years ago, I’m not sure exactly when, I began thinking of climbing the Ridge in one fast push, no camp. I have friends who have done the route, and heard their stories of fierce storms and rock falls that rocked it daily. I saw pictures of the huge crevasses lining its approach and the ice wall and bergschrund guarding its exit.
Given all the dangers one is exposed to on this treacherous mountain, wouldn’t it be safer to limit the amount of time you spend on it? One day would logically be safer than spending three to five days exposed to arctic-like storms and life-threatening rock falls. But could it physically be done? At that time, I knew the answer was no. But, over the past few years I’ve concentrated on long runs in the mountains to build up a good base of endurance. The summer before this I ran the Leadville 100 and found out what a long day really looks like.
Liberty Ridge would combine a lot of things for me. The skills needed to traverse three crevasse laden glaciers, strength to kick up a six thousand foot ridge of snow, rock, and ice, and of course the endurance to link it all together. Maybe more important would be the wisdom that only comes from being in the mountains. What do we bring with us, and what do we leave behind? What weather is good enough? When do we decide if we are going to turn around?
Pete Lardy was the obvious choice of partners. As a climber, he was calculating and safe, as opposed to my approach which was just to launch into something and see what happened. He also had big mountain experience, having climbed Denali and taking part in Himalayan expeditions. He knew how to plan the logistics of a big trip and sort out the small details most would overlook.
We felt strong and ready the day we caught the plane. Flying over Washington, we caught our first glimpse of volcanoes in the distance. We finally saw what we thought was Rainier.
“Well that’s not so big,” I thought.
Then the plane banked right and revealed an enormous peak weighed down with heavily crevassed glaciers and dark, rocky ridges. My palms started sweating with anticipation and fear. One day?
Once at the Park, we drove to the Ranger station in the rental car and paid the necessary fees and red tape. I watched the expression in the Ranger’s face change as Pete told her our plan. She motioned to the other Ranger for back up, and waited for his arrival before she started persuading us not to go through with it.
“This is a very strenuous route.” She said.
“ I advise you go heavier and slower on this one boys. Bad weather can roll in unexpectedly and that’s when people start dyin.”
We totally understood their perspective, and knew that they must deal with a lot of noobs and idiots who come there not knowing what they were getting into. We just hoped not to initiate ourselves into that category!
We compromised and signed up for a bivy site “just in case” though it wouldn’t do any good considering the fact that we wouldn’t be bringing tents, sleeping bags, or camping gear of any kind. Our only protection would be a goretex and a lightweight down jacket.
Gear on Lib Ridge (each):
Two locking carabiners
two wire gate carabiners
one quadruple length runner
Two shoulder length draws
5lbs of food, mostly gu and bars
4 liters of water
And , one 60 meter twin rope and a small stove
Although we widdled the packs down as much as we could, we were surprised to find that they weighed nearly 40 lbs each. A lot of it was the large amount of water we had to carry so that we wouldn't have to stop and brew up more water.
We drove to the trailhead mostly to see where it was, and to talk to anyone in the parking lot about conditions. Everyone we found there was wiped out from their climb, and reported deep slush. But, they were all hiking at low altitudes during mid-day. After hearing a few stories, Pete and I came up with a plan. We’d go back to camp and pack up, get a few hours rest, and leave the trailhead by 3 am. This would allow the snow to consolidate, and time for us to reach the Ridge before it softened up at the lower altitudes. As long as we moved fast, we could be back below treeline before nightfall.
We slept a solid six hours. I knew my pack was ready and everything lain out. I’d gone over it several times just to be sure.
We awoke at two, ate breakfast (a mountain house meal) and drove to the TH. We were hiking by 3am. The trail was mostly snow from the beginning, but was firm and straightforward. We got lost at one point, but only for about fifteen minutes.
We topped out on St Elmo’s pass in around 5 hours. We roped up from there and crossed the Winthrop and Carbon Glaciers. Most of the crevasses were covered with heavy spring snow. The few that were open were easily avoided.
Up to this point, the weather was questionable at best. The cloud level was low, and freezing rain was common. It wasn’t until we were half way across the Carbon that we broke through the clouds and saw the ridge above us, topped by blue sky above. It was only then that I knew the ridge would go.
Pete marched us across the Glaciers like a pro, selecting the most direct lines and watching for tell tell signs of crevasses that I would not have known to look for.
To gain the Ridge, we had to run wide left, across a massive crevasse, then come back down to the toe. The sun was now beating down pretty hard and loosing large rocks from the rockband above. We tried to move fast through this part, but finally ran into the soft, deep snow we heard about. A couple times we had small rocks fall between us, so I tried to move even faster, which was a mistake. I crossed over a small rise and stepped into a waist deep “hole” that swallowed my right foot. I tried desperately to free it, all the while thinking of the enormous boulders only thirty feet above my head. The snow setup like cement around my foot, and while I dug out with my hands, axe, and other foot, I sunk my other crampon well into my calf. OUCH! Pete was still behind the rise and had no idea what the hell I was doing.
Once freed, we climbed loose, sketchy choss and ice to gain the Ridge. It had taken us 7 hours to get here, and another hour to pull up on Thumb Rock.
A team of guided climbers was waiting at the bivy when we arrived. They had been watching us since we crossed the Carbon Glacier and congratulated us on moving so fast. They had taken two full days to reach this point, and were acclimating at 10,500 for the rest of their third day. One guy informed us that the best tent spots had been taken. We politely told him we wouldn’t be needing a spot, and were leaving in a few minutes after we had a snack. We ended up taking thirty minutes for lunch.
One of the guides told us that someone had been left by his party near the bergshrund the day before, and said to look out for him or any signs of him.
We gradually slowed down above 12000 ft. The altitude was one factor, plus we had been pushing it hard for ten hours, with a gain of 8 or 9 thousand feet.
We roped up a pitch below the bergshrund due to ice, and found a nice ledge to belay from. I took our four screws and led out and over steep snow and ice for about thirty feet. While not technically challenging, this lead was a lot of fun due to the exposure and unpredictability of the medium. Above the crux, I went directly for the top, while Pete began simul-climbing to save time. I placed a tibloc in case Pete fell on the crux.
The movement of the more challenging terrain excited me and through the focus I pushed it a little too hard. I placed a screw at the exit of the ice face on to liberty cap, and rested my head on the wall. When I opened my eyes I was looking between my crampons down to Pete 200 feet below, then on to Liberty Ridge cutting the Carbon Glacier like a knife. Below that, clouds crept up and shot out to the Pacific. This is the picture I should have taken, and will always regret not having done so.
We steered left of Liberty Cap and sought shelter from the harsh, cold winds. At the saddle, we put on more layers and moved on quickly.
14 hours had passed.
We skirted the left side of the true summit and cruised down the Emmons, again with Pete in the lead.
As we dropped elevation, the weather again deteriorated. Pete was having a hard time seeing wands in the storm (I couldn’t see them at all!), so we were slowed a little. But, he always trended in the right direction and found our true course.
The clouds lifted a little just above Camp Schurman, but the wind grew even angrier as it was forced over the Winthrop and around the Interglacier. Half a dozen tents struggled to stay attached.
At the Ranger’s hut (about the size of a utility shed) we were welcomed by RMI guides and the climbing ranger. They were confused and thought we were lost because no one had gone up the Emmons all day due to weather. They thought we may have come down the North Face accidently after summiting from the South.
We told them where we came from and what we were doing, and they were happy we were ok, in those “little booties” of ours. Pete and I passed up the double plastics for our lightweight leather mountaineering boots, which is not popular in the Cascades apparently.
We spent about twenty or thirty minutes here eating and thawing our camelbacks (yes, we were dumb enough to use camelbacks). One guide pointed out the shortest way back on our small map, which he was even less impressed with.
The snow was pretty loose past this point, and it took two or three hours to get back to the car from here. We did make it well below treeline before the sun set and forced us to fish out our headlamps.
At the car I stopped my stopwatch at 20:01:57.
The last thing I remember before passing out was sitting at the picnic table with Pete, as we polished off a post climb six-pack. Pete was nodding off and almost spilling his beer. I think his helmet was still on!
We had given ourselves seven days to do the climb, but only had needed one and a half. We spent the next five days cruising the peninsula and checking out the sites. And, drinking more beer of course.
A big part of our success on the trip was our ability to train for it at altitude. Pikes Peak is very close to us, and we spent three or four weekends leading up to the climb above treeline, and many months before that hiking and running Barr Trail. Though a big day, it wasn't nearly as hard as a few of the Ultramarathons I've run. My hat is off to the climbers who have to approach this thing from sealevel.