"I've always laughed when others have compared climbing to dancing. To me, climbing is more like a fist fight. Dancing is maybe something you do nice and safe at the crag or at the bouldering gym. Real climbing is miserable. You slug it out with the mountain and beat it into submission, or it beats you. Either way, you come down completely hammered, having given it your all."
I last had a chance to climb Mount Rainier's Liberty Ridge in Summer of 2012. An ill-fated trip, it was scuttled a few days before our departure by poor weather and a spousal veto on the part of my partner's wife. Can you really blame her? This year was to be different, of course. We managed to win the meteorological coin toss and I had my down-for-anything-Russian-secret-weapon-of-a-partner, Kirill by my side. From our perspective, the only thing standing between us and the summit was the ever present threat of too many and sustained, rowdy nights at the bar. Lucky for us we had plenty of “acclimation time” in Seattle before and after the climb, allowing us to concentrate more fully during our two days on the mountain.
Conditions on the mountain were reported to be not so great. The previous winter had been a dry one, and the temperature was above average, melting out most of the route and making route finding through the crevasses difficult. In fact we actually found ourselves forced off of the normal route several times just to make it go. I think it is reasonably safe to say that the route was in late season condition. There was quite a bit of objective hazard, manifesting itself in the form of frequent and heavy rock fall. We had to move fast between protected areas, and be light enough on our feet to be able to jump out of the way if something big was coming down. The real challenge became strategizing and finding a way to manage the objective hazard, rather than technical difficulty. It turned out to be a perfect match to our chosen style of climbing. We opted for less equipment, making a couple of sacrifices in pursuit of a light kit. Most notably we carried only 8 oz of fuel, food for 2 days (which we could have stretched over 3), one sleeping bag, 3 ice screws, 2 pickets, and a 30m rope. We used everything that we brought, except for the tent and pickets, and needed nothing more. Mine and Kirill's packs weighed in at around 20 and 25 pounds, respectively, although I think the difference was mostly due to the fact that Kirill was carrying the whisky and several pounds of gourmet food.
We were dropped off at around 8 PM at White River by Kirill's brother Alexey and his partner Yian, who were planning to climb the DC route. Our plan was to go over the summit to meet them on the DC and descend to the car. Bored by the prospect of setting up camp at the trailhead, we made the quick hike in to the Glacier Basin Campground, which we arrived to shortly after nightfall. I foolishly started hiking in my soft shell pants, and stripped them off soon after. Despite it being dusk, it was still quite warm! Once at camp, we gorged on prosciutto and sushi and strewed our now soaking wet equipment in a hopeless attempt at drying it. Oh yeah, this isn't Colorado. We napped for a few hours before breaking camp along with our soggy gear at 2 AM.
I don't have much to say about the approach to the Carbon, aside from we did a lot of hiking in the dark, followed by a beautiful sunrise on the Winthrop. The snow hadn't frozen overnight, and we were post holing well before sunrise. From Curtis Ridge we found it easy to get onto the Carbon Glacier. My only advice here is if it isn't a mellow talus slope when you look over the edge, lose elevation and try again. We found ourselves going down more often than not on the traverse. STAY LOW STAY LOW STAY LOW. There's some more beta for you. Now go have fun.
This was to set the tone for the rest of Liberty Ridge. The question was not, “Is there going to be rock fall?” It was, “Where is the rock fall going to be?” I remember standing there, turning to Kirill, and saying “We're probably going to get hit by some rocks. You ok with that?” We examined the main slope carefully, and within just a few minutes noticed enough activity to dissuade us from attacking the main slope head-on. We opted to instead surmount a small ice bulge on the far left and sneak in using a narrow 45 degree snow couloir, which is visible in the photo above. At the base, under shelter of the lip of the bergschrund, we stopped for a break and un-roped, preparing to sprint the remaining ~1500 feet to Thumb Rock. There was still plenty of rock fall on our route and we proceeded with much caution. Here we adopted a strategy of alternating fully concentrating on climbing and then watching the slope above as the other climber moved. This worked well, and we made good time with minimal exposure. As with all problems, as we ascended the slope it broke itself up into smaller pieces, and we managed to hop from one sheltered area to another,taking refuge under small overhung rock bands, as we worked our way up to the ridge. It was really more hiking than climbing, with the angle never going above 45 degrees and usually staying closer to 35, but we did our fair share of post holing. We sunk into the slush up to our knees at times, stopped only by the hard glacial ice below. I always struggle with the prospect of explaining the difficulties of ice climbing through 6-8” of slush, but there was some of that as well. Ultimately, we topped out at the Thumb Rock “Campsite” at around 2 PM, only to find a landscape void of any evidence of human passing. I remember thinking, “Sick, this is what it must have looked like on the first ascent!”
It wasn't long before high winds moved in and we got a taste of how unpredictable weather can be on Rainier. At 2 AM the wind came in hard and threatened to tear away our single sleeping bag. We had spread it open and were using it quilt style, and when either of us would fall asleep their side of the bag would get torn off by the wind, sending the whole bag vertical, held down only by our four feet crammed into the toe box. After fighting with it for a while we managed to find a way to keep it down while we waited for the wind to calm down. It finally subsided to a reasonable level at around 5 AM and we got started.
"I was ready to pull and re-swing my bottom tool, looking slightly up when I saw two rocks in my periphery moving directly at me. It all happened lightning fast. I lunged to the right, throwing my body weight onto one crampon and my lightly placed ice tools. In the same instant I screamed “ROCK!” Another moment of terror later and both rocks sailed by with a terrifying fluttering hiss that you have to hear to really understand."
We set off from camp unroped at about 6 AM. Our route out of camp went right as the left and center variations were completely melted out. This forced us into a crevasse field and some good steep ice climbing to bypass the crevasses. There were 2 or 3 bulges of dirty, glacial AI2, starting with a short vertical step that we soloed. Neither of us thought twice about it, but I would have hated to try to put screws into that stuff. It was hard enough to get our picks to stick in it. We continued straight up before roping up for a few thin snow bridges and rejoined the route before transitioning into a leftward traverse below the black pyramid. Up until now the shelling from above had lulled, but as we rounded the corner we were confronted with a particularly bad slope. It was only about 40 degrees, but threatened by rockfall coming from a 40 foot vertical drop immediately above. It was absolutely littered with debris and we kicked steps in the rock that had piled up on the sun cupped snow. Several pieces were falling every minute, from baseball to mailbox in size, usually coming down in a big release and almost always coming down several deep runnels in the middle of the slope. Getting across the traverse ended up being a matter of putting your head down to the small pieces that were falling and moving quick enough to avoid a major release. We managed no major casualties across this slope aside from a rock that clipped my right leg and another that tagged my forearm. I didn't know it at the time, but the last one cut my arm. At least it didn't tear my jacket! Beyond this slope we found clean snow and relative safety, along with a glacial drip, and we took a second to have a break and load up on water.
By now we were in full sun, and had stripped back down to our base layers. We could see nothing but an endless snow slope above us and we knew we were close to the relative safety of Liberty Cap. Below us, the entirety of the Carbon Glacier welcomed us into its maw. The snow was thick and heavy, and accepted our legs up to our knees as payment for our progress, which we doled out in sullen silence. As we gained elevation the snow thinned and what once was a bomber self belay from an ice tool turned into a shallow pick placement. Wide, supportive kicked steps yielded to the occasional front point. Before long we were fully engaged on our front points and both tools, the dirty glacial ice streaming with the tears of its own destiny, us fighting against its pull, upwards towards our own. I've always laughed when others have compared climbing to dancing. To me, climbing is more like a fist fight. Dancing is maybe something you do nice and safe at the crag or at the bouldering gym. Real climbing is miserable. You slug it out with the mountain and beat it into submission, or it beats you. Either way, you come down completely hammered, having given it your all. I felt differently here though. I felt comfortable on the ice and stretched my tool placements shallow and far apart. Swing, kick, kick, kick, swing, kick, kick, kick, swing... I fell into the rhythm and felt like maybe this is what people meant when they talked about dancing. If there is anything close to it in the mountains, I was doing it right then. The more I moved, the more I noticed the texture of the ice and the tiny runnels that ran with melt water. The whole face was running. In all directions we were surrounded by a throbbing, shimmering, sheet of ice. With the melt water came the inevitable rock missiles from above. This time flying clear and left of us, but with surprising speed. I yelled to Kirill and silently hoped that he was below me and not off to the left. I immediately felt incredibly exposed. We were on a 50 degree ice slope that we now estimate to have been 1500 feet in length, with no terrain protection in sight.
I believe I would have preferred to continue soloing at this point, but we decided to rope up on a running belay as Kirill had acquired a mysterious knee injury and did not feel comfortable soloing on it. We didn't have many options here. Pitching out a face of this length with a 30m rope would be out of the question. Simul-climbing was our only option, but it would be done with runouts so big that the point was nearly negated. We alternated leading blocks, leading 4 rope lengths at a time as that is all that our 3 ice screws would allow. We belayed from our ice tools. Every 100 feet the leader placed one ice screw, keeping the team “anchored” to the mountain at all times. We climbed 3 simul-pitches and soloed another 400 feet of easier ice before reaching the ramp below our Liberty Cap exit. During our third simul-pitch we had our closest call of the trip. It was my lead, we were 200 feet into the pitch, and I was about to stop and place another ice screw. There had been no rock fall for a longtime, and we were both feeling relatively comfortable. The thought even crossed my mind to put my headphones back in. I was ready to pull and re-swing my bottom tool, looking slightly up when I saw two rocks in my periphery moving directly at me. It all happened lightning fast. I lunged to the right, throwing my body weight onto one crampon and my lightly placed ice tools. In the same instant I screamed “ROCK!” Another moment of terror later and both rocks sailed by with a terrifying fluttering hiss that you have to hear to really understand. One the size of an encyclopedia cartwheeled straight passed me, grazing over my left shoulder at what I can only guess must have been better than 100 mph. The other cleared me 20 feet to the left. The following moment I remember nothing but hyper awareness. I would have gladly accepted that the mountain sent down the rest of its debris in one volley as in the moment I was sure I could have handled it. I've felt it before, once leading a 150 foot ice pillar that fractured and shifted in response to a misplaced swing of an ice tool. It's the way you feel when your mind is convinced that you are going to die, and I didn't want it to end. Later, I craved it, and it has been the subject of much unrest in the days past. Back in the moment, I wasn't sure about where Kirill was. Loud, Russian accented expletives from below told me the story all at once. He wasn't hit, but we were both very excited to get off of this face.
Fortunately,this was to be our last rock fall incident of the day, and the rest of the route went smoothly. We continued up low angle ice, punctuated by the occasional patch of snow and took one last break below the ramp that accesses the crux of the route. I bonked pretty hard here and ate my last two gels at once to try and recover. Kirill was feeling good however and took off in the lead, alternating front pointing glacial ice and post holing in the slush. We roped up one last time at the exit, which was a short, well protected, bouldery move off of a fragile snow mushroom that collapsed as Kirill was following. It felt casual after the rest of the day, and I struggle with assigning a grade to it. How about “athletic” WI3-? Our rack of 3 screws ended up being perfect for it, as we actually got to have an ice screw for the belay, and Kirill climbed through, continuing to break trail up to the summit of Liberty Cap.
We topped out sometime in the early afternoon, and stopped to brew up and eat “breakfast” which we had been threatening to do all day. We had expected to see some people over on Columbia Crest, but I suppose we were too late as all of the other parties had already descended. This part reminded me of my trip to Mount Logan last summer, wholly expecting to see other people on the summit and not seeing a soul on the entire descent. Kirill's knee was bothering him quite a bit by this point so we dialed back the pace a bit and did a rising traverse around the summit crater to link up with the DC. Neither of us had ever been on Rainier before, and we hadn't really researched the descent much, so it was quite the adventure. We simply used the GPS on my iPhone to find the right aspect of the summit crater and the wands for the DC took over from there. The weather had been deteriorating substantially, and some snow and graupel began to fall as we kicked on the autopilot and started the death march down the DC.
The hike down the DC was absolutely stunning, and the large crevasses offered a convoluted maze that the well marked trench gave us a grand tour of. Around every corner I was absolutely blown away by the incredibly beautiful ice falls and crevasses that we were hiking through. The guide services do an excellent job at making it as user friendly as possible, and after a while we both felt comfortable with kicking off our crampons and trudging down in the slushy snow. Every major crevasse crossing had a fixed line over it, and many had ladders. Any area of even slight exposure had a fixed line. What a great way to walk off of a mountain! Relax, take in the beauty, and smell the roses. Or in our case, really bad smelling Capilene. I was excited to be finished, to the extent that we were not far from a beer, a hot meal, and a shower, but as we descended a part of me started to wither and die. I regretted each passing step off of the mountain, and as the sun began to set, I was sad to see the day go. We took our time, and as the sun gave up its last rays we made it into Camp Muir where several people were awaiting our arrival. “Hey, what camp is this?” I greeted them. “Uhhh Camp Muir?” (dubiously) They answered. Apparently they had watched us as we were descending from the summit crater and were concerned for our safety. We stopped for a quick break here to chat with the other mountaineers and Kirill popped into the ranger cabin to have his knee checked out. They were interested in what we had done, and I couldn't stop raving about how much we had enjoyed their mountain. After a quick exam, the consensus was that Kirill was fine to continue descending, so the rangers topped off our water (Thanks guys!) and we started the hike out to Paradise as others in camp were rousing for their summit attempt. We hiked out under a big, bright moon and reveled in the beauty of the place, even at night. We got out late and re-united with our friends in the dimly lit parking lot. The next day, Kirill came into possession of a pair of crutches. I walked badly for a week.
Over the next few days we got some rest and enjoyed the city of Seattle, the culture, and the company of our hosts, Alexey and Ursula, who so graciously opened their home to us. We had a great time. We drank wine, dined in fancy restaurants, toured around the city, and went for a swim on the coast, normal things that all people can appreciate. One of my favorite things about climbing mountains is enjoying the sights and people of a strange land, and in this respect I was delighted. Internally however, I struggled. Liberty Ridge had come too late for me. I didn't feel satisfied, and I toyed with the idea of returning to try and solo the route in a day or soloing The Price Glacier. I wanted to climb Curtis Ridge or one of the Grade V routes that overhang as you ice climb up the final serac wall. I wanted to roll the big dice, and I wanted to flip my mind inside out with fear and emotion. This prompted a whole other set of internal dialogue. When is enough? How thin do I have to draw the line? Do I actually have to be hit by the rock to feel satisfied? With the questioning came guilt, and I intentionally blew off my last possible day of climbing by staying out late with some locals. I rented a bicycle the following afternoon and pedaled down the ocean front, with the mountain clearly visible on the horizon and in the forefront of my mind. A heavily caffeinated day of introspecting later (oh yeah, the PNW really knows how to do espresso), and I had my answer. I want the fear, commitment, camaraderie, uncertainty, and drama that only a two month expedition to a dangerous mountain in the middle of nowhere can provide. I live in the shadow of Mount Logan. I boarded the plane home and didn’t even bother looking out of the window. I returned home in a daze, finally understanding what I want, although unsure of whether I can be selfish enough to reach out and take it.