Our route up the Mowich Headwall and upper Mowich Face
Our flight from Orange County arrived in Seattle at 6:00 pm, and after a brief stop at REI to purchase stove fuel and food we began the drive to the trailhead at Mowich Lake. As expected, the road was closed at the national park boundary and we had about 6 miles of snowshoeing to reach the lake, where we made our first bivy at about 1:00 am.
Snowshoeing up the left side of Ptarmigan Ridge.
From Mowich Lake the Wonderland Trail winds through deep old growth forest toward the mountain. Route finding was a little tricky since the trail was under several feet of snow, but became easier once we reached the tree line and were able to navigate by landmarks. Still it was rough going through deep snow and would have been a lot harder without the snowshoes.
Our guidebook’s (Mount Rainier-A Climbing Guide by Mike Gauthier) route passes between Observation and Echo rocks before starting the descent from Ptarmigan ridge to the Mowich glacier. However, somehow we started the descent too early and had a long and uncomfortable traverse with significant exposure over steep wet snow and scree slopes. It was hot and the snow had turned into a deep sticky slush. By the time we reached the glacier we were both out of drinking water and had to pause and make more. Every so often there would be the sound of thunder in the distance from massive ice and rock slides.
Climbing up the North Mowich glacier toward base camp.
But our chosen base camp location was in sight, which we reached after a final grinding 2000 ft ascent. The base camp was on a ridge connected to a large rock outcropping immediately left from the bottom of the Mowich Icefall. We were able to scrape out a narrow ledge just wide enough for two sleeping bags, and somewhat sheltered from the wind. Snowshoes stuck in the snow at the edge created a barrier to keep us from accidentally rolling off in the night. It had been a pretty long day, but it was a good location and a comfortable bivy.
So comfortable was the bivy that we failed to get the early alpine start we had planned for. My alarm had been set, but somehow I slept through it. Damn! It’s important to get moving early while the snow is still frozen hard and before the sun loosens rocks and turns the snow into dangerous slush. But crying wasn’t going to help, so after a quick breakfast we packed up for the climb.
Our plan was that after summiting we would descend via the Tahoma glacier and traverse back around to this base camp. Since we planned to return and needed to climb light and fast, we decided to leave our snowshoes, trekking poles, and some extra fuel and food here. Our goal was to reach Sunset Ridge via the Mowich Headwall route, 4000 ft of steep 40-55 degree (grade IV) ice as well as some 5th class rock. Today would be the crux of the expedition and a test of our climbing skills.
Ice climbing the frozen waterfall at the hourglass constriction on the Mowich Headwall. Just above the frozen waterfalls of the first hourglass constriction on the Mowich Headwall
At around 10000 ft is a horizontal rock band standing above steep couloirs full of deep loose snow (although there appeared to be less snow and a wider rock band than in the photos from the guidebook). The rock on Rainier is loose, crumbly, and rotten. Meaningful protection is nearly impossible to place, so we dry-tooled around the couloirs with just a belay anchor. Immediately above this, the rock band narrowed into an hourglass constriction blocked by several frozen waterfalls. We had brought only one set of ice tools between us to save weight, so I led the pitch with the ice tools and my partner jugged up the rope after me. It was a fun test of the ice climbing skills we had been practicing in the Sierras! From here we did a running belay directly up the Mowich face toward a second rock band at 12000 ft, using two snow-pickets, our own two ice axes, and occasional ice screws as anchors.
Above the rock band was a towering ice cliff, and as we drew closer we became more and more concerned about the icefall hazard. We could hear the WHUMP sounds of nearby icefall and the thunder of distant avalanches. At some point I was hit with a small ice fall (perhaps a couple wheelbarrow’s worth), and all I could do was make myself as small of a target as possible and let my helmet and pack take the brunt of it. My partner had a narrow miss from a bicycle-wheel sized chunk of ice, but he was able see it coming and jump out of the way.
Rock and ice loom over us as we ascend the Mowich Headwall.
The whine of projectiles whizzing past us was a constant threat. It seemed like a bad idea to stay on this course, so although our route called for us to navigate through the rock band and around the base of the ice cliff, we chose to traverse up and to the right to join what the guidebook describes as a grade IV variation of the upper Mowich Face. This was a steep 50-60 degree ice slope, but with nothing hanging above our heads we felt much safer.
Traversing from the upper Mowich Headwall to the upper Mowich Face variation to escape from the constant rockfall and icefall
As we gained the upper Mowich face it became too steep and icy for a running belay, and we switched to standard belays. This slowed us down considerably, and the sun was getting low in the sky.
Steep 60 degree grade IV ice on the upper Mowich Face.
By the time we gained Sunset Ridge at around 13200 ft. we were very tired, so we dug a trench on the lee side of a snowdrift to partially shield us from the wind and crashed into our bivy sacks.
Our bivy trench at the top of Sunset Ridge.
When I awoke the inside of my bivy sack (Conduit SL with the 2nd zipper removed to save weight) was layered with ice and the zippers were frozen shut. We had the general idea that we would be descending the Tahoma glacier from here, so without adequately consulting our maps we proceeded like happy fools in the direction of the summit, leaving our packs at the camp.
Looking north from near the top of Liberty Cap.
After gaining the Liberty Cap, we could see the real summit about a mile in the distance, separated by 1000 ft descent. This was a bit disheartening, but we continued on and reached the Rainier summit at about 10:00 am.
The summit overlooks an impressive volcanic crater about half a mile across. Although it is filled with snow, the rim is dotted with vents spewing steam and bare patches of ground. It was a surreal and alien landscape. Off to the south across a sea of clouds we could see the snowy summits of Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, and the burned out husk of Mt. Saint Helens. A lone crow circled above the crater like an omen of doom. What could he possibly be doing up here a 14400 ft? But the wind was cold, so we started back to our camp to retrieve our packs and begin our descent.
By this time we had realized that the col between Liberty Cap and the summit was in fact the beginning of the Tahoma glacier, our planned descent route. Now we had to descent 1000 ft, climb back up to Liberty Cap, descend 1000 ft again, retrieve our packs, climb back up to Liberty Cap for the third time, then start down the glacier!
The upper Tahoma glacier has two arms separated by a big rock outcropping, and we started down on the lower arm (closer to Liberty Cap). After descending some 2000 ft and crossing snow bridges over several average sized crevasses we reached the edge of a substantial multi-step icefall. Further progress would require rappelling, and if we continued we would be completely committed.
Near the top of steep icefall on the Tahoma glacier, making further descent dangerous and committing.
A line of clouds was moving in from the west, and we didn’t relish the idea of whiteout conditions on the maze of crevasses below. We both had a bad feeling about it, so we took a break to reconsider our options. Like the geniuses we had thought we were, we had brought along only the maps of our planned route and had no information on any alternate descent routes. Descending back down the Mowich face was out of the question, and we decided the best thing we could do was climb back to the summit and bivy there. Since it was a long holiday weekend, guided climbing parties from camp Muir would be summiting the next day and we would be able to follow them down. If the weather turned and prevented any teams from summiting, at least we’d be somewhat sheltered and a lot easier to locate than if we were lost on the Tahoma glacier.
By the time we started down the glacier we had already accumulated over 4000 vertical feet for the day and were fairly tired, but we made the 2000 ft ascent and took shelter in protected area where the summit log box is kept just over the crater rim. That night we used the last of our fuel to melt some water and to cook one freeze-dried granola cereal meal to share between us.
In the morning I once again awoke toasty warm but frozen into a cocoon of ice (my Marmot Helium sleeping bag was simply amazing!) Just as we had hoped, we had hardly finished packing up our gear when we saw climbers arriving at the far side of the crater. They had no problem with letting us join them for the descent, and we made it down to Camp Muir in several hours. After a brief rest, we continued down toward Paradise. Somewhere around 8000 ft we descended into the clouds and the weather quickly turned into whiteout. It was impossible to see more than about 20 feet, but we had no problem following the wands and tracks. However we were thankful not to be out on the Tahoma glacier under these conditions, and I think the decision to retreat back up to the summit saved us a lot of suffering. In any case, we made it down to Paradise by around 5:00 pm.
On the way down we had met an exceptionally nice guy who agreed to give us a ride around to the other side of the mountain where we had left our car. We weren’t going to be able to return to our high camp to retrieve our stashed gear, but a couple hundred dollars worth of lost gear seemed like a small price to pay for such an amazing expedition. If anyone is interested in retrieving the gear, I would be happy to provide detailed information on the base camp location. You'd be welcome to keep it, send it to us, or dispose of it however you wish.
We learned a couple of major lessons from this trip:
1. Be much more careful in planning the descent. Don’t just trust the blurb in the guidebook. Have maps and information on alternate routes! Spend at least as much time planning the descent as the ascent, especially if the descent is via a different route.
2. Don’t leave your packs unless you are really absolutely sure that you will want to return. Carefully consult your maps before deciding this!