Bill and I had climbed Mount Rainier in 2002 along with Erik, Rob and Thayla via the Emmons glacier. We wanted to return and climb the aesthetic Liberty Ridge route. 50 to 55 degree ice and snow on a very exposed ridge about sums up this route. We were looking forward to climbing a challenging and titillating route. We were excited for the opportunity and managed to get a great weather window for 49 hours that allowed us to climb this great ridge route.
Sunday, May 30th, 2004
After flying into Portland and driving into Washington, Bill and I arrived at the White River Ranger Station around 2 p.m. on Sunday under overcast skies. Talking with two climbers at the ranger station, we found they had just returned from an attempt on Liberty Ridge but only got as far as Curtis Ridge when weather forced them back. The ranger was only aware of one other team to summit Liberty Cap via Liberty Ridge this season. He quizzed us about our experience and previous climb on Rainier, took our $30 each for climbing passes and gave us our reservation form for a camp at Glacier Basin Sunday night, camp at Thumb Rock Monday night and camp at Camp Schurman Tuesday night. We packed up our goods in the parking lot of the ranger station and got ready to depart.
The weather forecast was predicting clearing on Monday with a weak system coming through on Tuesday before more clearing on Wednesday. We liked our odds and left the White River campground trailhead (4,400 feet) to Glacier Basin at 4:30pm on Sunday afternoon. Our plan was to camp in Glacier Basin Sunday night, camp on Liberty Ridge at the Thumb Rock camp (~10,600 feet) on Monday night and summit Tuesday with the option of spending the night at Camp Schurman Tuesday night on the descent if we couldn't make it back to the car.
After a three-mile, 1.5 hour hike approach to Glacier Basin (6,000 feet), our camp was set for the night. We chatted with a neighboring tent occupant, Chris, about his plans to accompany a guided group up the Emmons in a couple of days time.
Monday, May 31st, 2004
It snowed a half inch of snow overnight in Glacier Basin. We awoke at 6:30am under a mostly cloudy sky and left Glacier Basin for the ascent over St. Elmo's Pass (7,400 feet) at 7:30am. We did a bit of post-holing in old boot track filled with new snow up St. Elmo’s Pass. We reached the top of the pass around 8:30am.
At the top of the pass we had our first view of the lower Winthrop Glacier to the west. We would descend to the Winthrop, traverse across it at about 7,200 feet over to Curtis Ridge before dropping onto the Carbon Glacier.
Cruising across the first part of the Winthrop was no problem. We did not find any tracks descending from St. Elmo’s Pass so we were on our own breaking trail on the well consolidated snow of the Winthrop. We roped up shortly after beginning the traverse across the Winthrop as we could see depressions in the glacier signifying underlying crevasses. From St. Elmo’s Pass across the Winthrop and over Curtis Ridge we were breaking trail in intermittent whiteout conditions. Clouds would dissipate for a few minutes at a time allowing us to get our bearing towards Curtis Ridge.
The traverse from St. Elmos Pass to Curtis Ridge took a bit longer than expected given the poor visibility and trail breaking but we finally arrived at the Curtis Ridge at 7,200 feet at 11:40am. We then descended onto the Carbon Glacier and began ascending the glacier to the base of the Liberty Ridge route.
Thankfully we stumbled upon some fresh tracks up the Carbon that seemed to be right on track. This was a god send as the whiteout conditions on the glacier would have made routefinding very difficult and slow. The ranger we spoke to Sunday had mentioned a guided IMG group of six ahead of us and based on the accuracy of these tracks we were following, we were sure the tracks belonged to the IMG group.
At 12:45pm we had closed in on the upper end of the Carbon and the clouds broke allowing us a view of the ridge for the first time. We also noticed the tracks we had been following going up and over the rise in the glacier and then returning. We guessed the group had gone up the "normal" route of the upper Carbon glacier but got stymied by crevasses and had to turn back and try another route.
Going on this hunch we just followed the fresher tracks to the right (west side) of the Carbon. A few minutes later we came across the IMG group setting up camp on the Carbon just below Liberty Ridge. They had had enough for the day and the predicted weather system for Tuesday was concerning them. We chatted briefly with the two guides and thanked them for the wonderful boot track up the Carbon. They quizzed us about our preparedness and plans for the ridge. We told them we had fuel and food enough to spend a couple days at Thumb Rock camp on the ridge if necessary. We bid them a good climb and continued on up to the upper reaches of the Carbon Glacier.
We found the upper Carbon Glacier to be heavily crevassed and could find only one decent looking snow bridge between a 60-foot-deep crevasse system that lead to Liberty Ridge.
Taking a deep breath I cautiously worked my way across the bridge as Bill played out rope. Once across it was Bill's turn to follow in my foot steps. One more short snow bridge crossing after that and we were staring up at the east side of Liberty Ridge looking for a way to gain the ridge.
Lacking any other obvious options, we opted for a ugly snow/rock slope to gain the ridge proper. A recent rockfall/wet snow slide had left quite a skid mark down the ridge's east side. This sketchy snow to sketchier rock line got us to the ridge proper. Bill lead out and up this section.
Around 3:00pm we gained the true ridge and began ascending Liberty Ridge's right (west) side towards Thumb Rock. Thumb Rock is a major landmark on the ridge at about 10,600 feet offering about the only level spot for bivying on the entire ridge.
The snow was good step kicking snow on the west side of the ridge and afforded us some quick movement upwards. We actually ended up crossing over the ridge to the east side for a couple of short sections but found windloaded, knee-deep snow on the east side that we didn't necessarily enjoy. So it was back to the west side of the ridge including some rock scrambling directly on top of the ridge.
On Liberty Ridge's crest above the clouds in perfect weather around 4:15pm, we enjoyed some fun and aesthetic climbing indeed! The ridge's angle never exceeded 35-40 degrees on this lower section below Thumb Rock.
Just below Thumb Rock at 5:05pm we opted for the rock/dirt traverse on the west side of Thumb Rock’s base to gain the campsite just above Thumb Rock. A little digging of new snow from an old tent platform at Thumb Rock was necessary for us to pitch the tent. We arrived at Thumb Rock camp at 5:30pm under clearing skies. We began the snow melting process and filled up my 3 liter hydrosack, my one liter nalgene bottle and Bill's 2 one liter bottles before boiling some water for dinner.
The day had been a big success for us ascending 4600 vertical feet from Glacier Basin to Thumb Rock in ten hours. And the weather appeared to be clearing and staying stable. We were in good spirits. Our plan was to awake at 3am, take a look at the weather and head for the summit if it was clear. We dined in the tent on freeze-dried spaghetti with slices of cheddar cheese melted into it. Man that was some delicious spaghetti.
Right around 9pm the sun set below the sea of clouds making for a truly awesome sunset.
The wind died down a bit and was only intermittent throughout the night. The camp at Thumb Rock is one of the best camps I've ever had. As far as the view is concerned, it ranks right up there with the Lower Saddle camp on the Grand Teton.
Tuesday, June 1st, 2004
We awoke at 3am to a perfectly clear sky and the lights of Seattle and the Puget Sound to the northwest. .We packed up camp and set off up the ridge at 4:30am. From Thumb Rock climbers have three options for gaining the ridge above the rock face behind camp. The left face (east side) promised to be more deep snow wallowing so we skipped that idea. The center gully involved a 15-foot ice pitch at about 80 degrees so we skipped that as well. We ended up going right (west face) around the rock which turned out to be quite nice. Good step kicking in relatively good snow for about an hour up to 11,500 or so.
We began to run into some glare ice at this point and each pulled out the second ice tool we had. To this point the single, alpine ice ax was plenty sufficient but as the route steepened and the snow turned to a more icy surface, it was very nice to have the comfort of a second tool. We only ran into a few short sections of true water ice along the route.
Just below the Black Pyramid at around 12,000 feet I stopped to belay Bill up to a rock outcropping for a much needed break.
After this the snow/ice steepened to about 55 degrees going around the Black Pyramid on the east side of the ridge.
We were no longer able to penetrate the snow/ice surface much and began to spend a great deal of time on our front points. While not difficult, it was quite pumpy on the calve muscles to spend ~1300 vertical feet on the front points.
Around 13,200 feet we stopped to rest and then Bill lead off for the bergschrund. We headed for the left side of the bergschrund near almost straight up the ridgeline.
We could make out way to move left around a vertical ice wall at the schrund and take steeper snow/ice to the slope above the schrund. At the bergschrund Bill placed our first piece of protection, an ice screw, to protect him as he went over and around the steeper section of ice at the bergschrund.
We topped out on Liberty Cap around 10:45am.
Looking across from Liberty Cap to Rainier's true summit, Columbia Crest, we witnessed a nice lenticular cloud enclosing Columbia Crest. Seeing this, we opted not to go to the true summit and headed down towards the Emmons.
Rather than ascending anymore than we had to before descending the Emmons/Winthrop Glaciers to Camp Schurman, we headed down from the saddle between Liberty Cap and Columbia Cap between the two glaciers.
This worked well until we became "crevassed out" and had to improvise a short crevasse crossing to gain the Emmons Glacier wanded route down. The Emmons appeared to be in very good shape and had a few wands to mark the way. We did a good bit of postholing down to Schurman as it was a warm afternoon.
We arrived at a deserted Camp Schurman at 1:45pm. It began snowing lightly and the winds picked up on the summit. Our timing had been just right. With plenty of daylight left in the day, we loaded up and headed out towards the car at the White River CG.
Descending the interglacier at 2:30pm was a bit brutal with some major postholing on the descent. But with beer on our minds, we trudged on purposefully and arrived back at the car at 5pm. Pizza and beer was located at a restaurant in nearby Packwood, WA.
Two days later we heard the news of John Cahill falling and dying on Liberty Ridge. We are quite somber to hear this news and our thoughts go out to his family.