Our First Mountaineering Adventure:
My wife and I planned a climb of Mount Rainier as part of our summer trip through the Western United States. We traveled through Colorado (Boulder, Mount Elbert), Utah (Arches), Nevada, California (Lassen Volcanic, Redwoods), Oregon (Crater Lake, Smith Rock), Washington (Rainier), Idaho, Wyoming (Tetons, Yellowstone), and South Dakota (Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Badlands), and had a fabulous trip.
After climbing Mount Elbert in Colorado (snow and high winds on the ridge coming from South Elbert) and Lassen Peak (great climb, perfect weather) in California on the way to Washington, we felt prepared for Mount Rainier.
On the morning of June 20th, we picked up our friend Andy (no previous mountaineering experience) from the Portland airport. On our way into Washington we were able to get several great views of Mount Rainier. Once we arrived at Rainier we met up with our other friend, Matt (2 previous glacier climbs). Now our group was complete and we headed to the White River Ranger Station to obtain our climbing and camping permit. Once we had our permits, we headed back to a campground close to Paradise (I forgot the name) since the White River campground was still closed due to road repairs. At the campground we sorted out our mountains of gear and had a wonderful steak dinner (the last good food for 4 days).
The next morning we got up at 5am and drove to the White River Trailhead where we met up with our guides, Ryan and Jeff, from Cascade Alpine Guides, and other group members at 7am. We had chosen to take a 2 day glacier travel course on the Winthrop glacier, but wanted to reach the summit on our own. Thus we would spend the next 2 days with the guided group and then split from the group to climb to the summit.
After weighing in at the trailhead (my backpack was right at 70lbs -- needs to improve for future trips) we started the 3 mile trail towards glacier basin. Once we arrived at the basin we took a short break and refilled our waterbottles from the stream originating from the Inter Glacier. From Glacier Basin we continued by stepping onto the lower end of the Inter Glacier (this part will melt out later during the summer). We then moved up the Glacier towards Elmo's Pass. About 500 vertical feet below Elmo's Pass we stopped close to a steeper section to practise kick-stepping, plunge-stepping, self-arrest, and some basic glissading. We spend about 2-3 hours doing this and continued to practise glacier walking techniques on our way up to Elmo's Pass.
At the top of Elmo's Pass we went over the techniques for roped travel, including the different knots, distance between ropemates, number of ropemates, and length of coil for the first and last members of the team. We covered the making and using of prusiks the following morning. From Elmo's Pass we descended in two rope-teams onto the middle of the Winthrop Glacier towards a section with 2 or 3 rock piles. First we stayed separated and covered the whole camp area several times, continuously probing for crevasses. After we established that the area was save for our camp spot, we stacked flags to mark the secured perimeter. Then we started to dig out platforms for our tents and secured the tents by tying them down with rocks and then burying these rocks in approximately 1 foot deep holes. Then we continued to build a kitchen and bathroom area. -- We had a total group of 9 (4 of us, 2 guides, and 3 other clients), leading to 4 tents. Once the camp was established, we had dinner, melted water, and had a warm drink before going to bed.
Due to the warm weather, we got off to an early start (5am) in order to practise glacier walking with crampons (even at that time the glacier was already very soft). We practised more roped walking, switchbacks, turning, french technique, duck walk, and crossed passed and over the first crevasses of the trip. We also covered different signs for the existance of crevasses. Then we returned to the tents to pack up and have breakfast. After breakfast we covered the use of prusiks, which we attached to our rope from this point forward. Then we went through some dry practises of crevasse rescue. We focused in particular on the Z-pulley and the guides made sure that every member of the team set up the system at least once. Then we went over a variety of different anchors: deadman, simple picket, ice screws, use of poles or ice-axe as anchor, and a variety of belay systems that can be used for easy and more complicated belays. Following the practise of these techniques, we roped up and went back towards Elmo's Pass.
At Elmo's Pass we split from the guides and other group members. The guides would go down to the bottom of the Inter Glacier to meet up with a different group that they would lead to the summit over the next few days. We left Elmo's Pass and traversed towards the center of the inter glacier, continuing to practise the different techniques that we learned during the previous days. We made it up the Inter Glacier and followed a path that lead us to the ridge between the Inter Glacier and the Emmons Glacier, at a point approximately 500ft (elevation) higher than Camp Curtis. From there we crossed onto the Emmons Glacier without loosing much elevation. Once we moved onto the Emmons Glacier, we encountered our first crevasses, however, all of them were small and could easily be crossed.
We arrived at Camp Shurman at about 5 o'clock and saw several climbers returning from the summit. We found out that about 20 climbers had summited that day and received many useful routfinding hints from the other climbers. Then we set up our camp and had dinner. During dinner we decided to take a rest day due to our late arrival at Camp Shurman and the fact that my wife was not feeling well.
We got up at about 9am and had a relaxed breakfast. Then Andy, Matt, and I roped up (my wife was still sick and her boots were wet) and practised Glacier travel for about 3 hours. During this process we went up the Emmons Glacier for approximately 1500ft (elevation) to the middle-top of the Corridor. However, at first we ascended a route towards the right of the corridor in the hope of finding a shortcut. However, due to our inexperience in Glacier travel, we decided to run up the "Cow-pasture". We crossed onto the Corridor accross 2 large snowbridges and then descended the Corridor back to Camp. On this way back we took note of the different crevasses within the Corridor and the section between the corridor and Camp Shurman (information that would be helpful during the following day). Once we arrived at camp we greeted the guided group which had just arrived from Camp Curtis and would also try to summit the following day. Then we had dinner, melted water, reinforced the tent anchors, and went to bed between 6 and 7 o'clock. We decided that we wanted to be the first team on the mountain and after hearing that the guided group was leaving at 1am, we set our departure time for 12:15am.
Day4: Summit Day.
We woke up at 11:30pm and my wife was still feeling sick. She decided to stay at camp and the 3 of us dressed and got roped up. Finally by 12:30-12:45 we were ready to leave. Andy would lead the first section, than Matt and then me, an order that would slighly change during the climb.
We got off to a fast start, covering the ground up the corridor. We were climbing at about 1500ft per hour and did not have any major obstacles to surmount. Once we left the corridor we slowed down somewhat since we had to traverse to the right and while doing so, cross several smaller crevasses. As we continued the snow conditions became more and more icy and at around 11500ft we decided to put our crampons on, however, we continuously increased our lead over the guided group. As we continued up the glacier, we decided not to switch the rope order, and Matt led us all the way to the summit. (It would be my turn to lead us down the glacier). On the way up we had to jump a couple crevasses, climb up a short ice/snow wall, got to watch the sunrise, and cross the bergschrund. It turned out to be a beautiful day, so we thought.
Once we crossed the Bergschrund we noticed clouds moving in and soon our visibility had been reduced to a few feet, cold wind and snow was blowing into our faces, and the water in one of my bottles froze. In this weather me made our way to the summit (without knowing that we had reached the top). The change in weather had impacted my altimeter, leading to a deviation of 200 feet from the actual elevation. We reached a highpoint, still having only a few feet visibility. Not knowing where exactly we where on the crater rim, we followed the rim towards the north and noticed that we were loosing elevation. We left the snow and entered a rocky section of the crater rim. Then finally the clouds moved away, and we saw that the highpoint that we had previously reached was the actual summit. Thus we returned to the summit to enjoy the view at Adam, Hood, Baker, ... , but decided to descent quickly due to some remaining clouds. About 500 ft below the summit we passed the guided group on their way up.
The way down was fairly easy, besides a near crevasse fall by Andy after he partially plunged through a snowbridge that Matt and I had previously crossed. We then proceded to plunge-step down the glacier and glissaded down the Corridor. This glissade was probably the most risky undertaking of the trip and after talking to the guides at Camp Shurman we would not do so again. We followed the glissading shute of the climbers from the previous days, however, the path ran right over several small crevasses and snow bridges. -- stupid idea. But we were lucky and made it back to Camp Shurman by 11am.
While we climbed to the summit of Rainier, Betsy remained at Camp Shurman. At about 9 or 10am one of the guides, Ryan, returned with two clients. One of the clients had had Lasik surgery several month before the climb and lost his eyesight once they reached a certain altitude (this seems to be common for Lasik surgery) and the other client was slowing down the group. Once they returned to Camp Shurman, Ryan and Betsy climbed up to Steamboat Prow, supposedly a Class 4 climb.
Once we returned to Camp Shurman, we packed up the tents and began our decend. Once we reached the Inter Glacier, we began to glissade (now in a safe environment), sometimes reaching somewhat scary speeds. Every member of the group had a great time glissading, however, I managed to rip 2 holes in my gore-tex pants. -- next time I will bring something cheap for the glissade down.
Once we reached the lower part of the Inter Glacier, Matt decided to leave the glacier and head towards Glacier Basin along the top of the Morain. Andy, Betsy, and I decided to follow the glacier and cross the creek further downstream. -- This was a big mistake, since the creek cannot be crossed safely and we had to backtrack a considerable distance. Once we met Matt at Glacier Basin we felt as if we completed our trip, but we still had 3 long miles remaining till we reached the parking lot. Once we sorted out our gear, we checked out with the Rangers, left Rainier National Park, found a hotel, had a shower, went to a steakhouse, and celebrated our successful ascent.
What a trip, we had a wonderful time and cannot wait to tackle the next larger mountain. Hopefully soon.
Thanks to Ryan and Jeff from Cascade Alpine Guides. They equipped us with the skills needed to safely climb Mount Rainier and their instruction went far beyond our expectation. We had a wonderful and very personalized experience and recommend Cascade Alpine Guides to anyone looking for a guiding service on Rainier. -- Thanks.
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