|Page Type:||Trip Report|
|Date Climbed/Hiked:||Jan 23, 2021|
After skiing the big hill in Spring and Summer, I've always dreamed about skiing off the summit of Rainier in the middle of winter. I have only skied the mountain with a very stable freeze/thaw cycle and assumed that a winter ascent would require a ton of luck and would be a logistical nightmare. I just moved to Washington three months ago and did not think this would be the year to make a winter bid.
This winter (20/21) has been strange.... Lots of high elevation snow but also quite a bit of rain, wind and high pressure mixed in. I've enjoyed the winter in Washington, but I can't lie, it can be a tough place to move... especially coming from sunny Utah. To say I was psyched about two days of high pressure would be an understatement. My buddy Sam Channels texted my splitboarding partner (Will Jones) and myself, throwing out the idea of skiing Rainier on January 23rd. I was intrigued, as everything seemed to be checking out. We have had a strong snowpack, followed by two days of high pressure. After a few texts back and forth, Will and I were on board. Sam was planning to climb Denali in May/June, so he was going to bring all his camping gear up to Muir and spend the night there. Being the lazy ski mountaineers, Will & I decided we would start from Paradise the following morning and meet Sam at Muir. Our ascent route would be the Gibraltar Ledges and we planned to ski the Ingraham Direct all the way back to the car.
Will and I both drove down seperate from Northern Washington on Friday after work, hoping to get through the Longmire gate before it closed at 4PM. On the drive down, Sam gave us a call and told us the mountain had a few inches of fresh and the Muir snowfield was in 'amazing shape'... Which turned out to be Sam's unreasonable optimism shining :) (More on that later). I reached the gate at 3:30PM and noticed it was halfway open, so I casually skirted around it. Apparently, the rangers closed uphill traffic early & what I did was totally illegal. The ranger informed me that I was almost ticketed *headsmack*.
Will and I reached Paradise parking lot at 4PM and the entire mountain was encased in a marine fog layer, so we just decided we would go to the parking lot and sleep. 30 minutes later, the rangers arrive and inform us that we were NOT allowed to sleep in the parking lot and we would have to go down. The trip was over before it started and I was frustrated that they wouldn't allow us to sleep in the lot, even when there was no chance of snow in the forecast. Thankfully, Will is much more personable than myself and managed to use his human interaction skills to convince the ranger to give us a break (THANK YOU!). We were both grateful for the kindness and understanding nature of the ranger... Our summit bid was saved! They did not want to intrude on our winter ascent. We went to bed happy, but cold. I woke up in the middle of the night to see clear skies, a full moon, and the entire mountain surrounded by brilliance. It was magical & I could only dream what it would be like to stand on top the next day.
Our plan was to start at 1:30AM, which Will followed through with. I was quite cold in the morning, so I spent an extra 30 minutes fiddling around and procrasinating with my morning breakfast of pop-tarts and frozen boiled eggs. Whoops. Will commented that it is unlike me to be so late... I was embarassed. My excuse: I haven't done an alpine start in a while, so I was a bit rusty :) The skinning started out reasonable and I could see Will's headlamp off in the distance. With a clear night, it was COLD for Washington. My estimate was around 10-15 degrees with the windchill.. Nothing crazy, but I knew the upper mountain would be a warzone. After about 2 hours of skinning, I noticed that all the 'snow' had turned into a sheet of ice. The consequences of a slip were minor, so I kept my skis on. Keeping skins on for as long as possible is a game I like to play and it usually gets me into trouble.... This time was no exception. On one particular icy patch, I slipped and fell approximately 50' down the slope. Yay....Crampons it is. I made it to Camp Muir at 4:30, roughly 10 minutes behind Will and was stoked to see Sam, ready to go. Sam almost had the nerve to say he would not carry his skis up the mountain! Conditions spooked him. Will and I both understood, but let Sam know that we would not be caught dead walking down Mount Rainier! It took about 10 seconds to convince him to strap the skis to his pack :)
Luckily our laziness & late arrival paid off, there were already TWO parties ahead of us setting the bootpack! They set the initial route, which we were very grateful for... as they discovered a few spooky crevasses before we reached the actual ledges. One member of the other party took a slip, putting their team in the back. Both parties ahead of us had no skis and planned to walk the entire mountain *GASP*. Accessing the ledges was pretty straightforward and the route itself was in great shape. The route was exposed, but nothing technical. Conditions were pretty good, with a few inches of soft snow on top of a sheet of ice. These conditions made solid footing and minimal bootpacking. Just as the deep cold started setting into our fingers and toes, the sun came up & we almost forgot how cold it really was.
The sunrise euphoria was short-lived, as the winds made sure to remind us that this mountain was going to put up a fight.
Sadly, Sam, Will and I caught up to the party in front and only followed for a little bit longer until I was digging a trench up Gibraltar chute :( Thankfully, energy levels were high and the motivation to move was higher.
At the top of Gib Chute is camp comfort, which I thought lived up to it's name. I was ahead by quite a bit, so I spent the next twenty minutes enjoying the view, eating, drinking and wiggling my extremities. Once my partners reached me, we put on a rope. Since Sam seemed to be struggling a bit with the speed, I put him out in front. From Camp Comfort, Sam had a STRONG second wind and he charged ahead.
Sam and I swapped breaking trail for the rest of the climb. It's always nice to have strong partners who can provide breaks when needed. I was grateful for Sam when it was his turn to lead, as the altitude started to hit us around 12,000'. The rest of the route was straightforward and we only had to climb over a few crevasses, which were nicely bridged. Our pace slowed and the cold seemed to be getting exponentially worse. The other two parties turned around, as they would not have been able to safely reach the summit and get down before dark (a case for skis!). We saw them heading back down the ledges. I was feeling pretty gutted for them. Once we reached the summit crater, it seemed like an enternity until we stood on top on Colombia Crest.
We all tried to take pictures and video, but turns out iPhones & GoPROs do not like subzero temperatures. The free air temperature was 0Degrees Fahrenheit with winds clocking in around 30mph... This corresponded to temperatures around -30Degrees Fahrenheit... Yikes. We tried to hide in a snowcave around the summit, but it was impossible to escape the cold & wind. Our only option from this point was to ski off the mountain as fast as possible.
I wish I could go on about how great it felt to stand on the summit, basking in sunshine, high-fives and eating candy.... But I would be lying. The summit was beautiful indeed, seeing the enchantments & Cascades blanketed in white winter.... The reality: we were all shaking and miserable :) A big group hug and a single selfie later, we were skiing across the crater.
We were standing on top of the Ingraham glacier & looking down a maze of crevasses & spindrift. The feeling of skiing a route we had not yet seen was intimidating... but we were confident we could find our way down, as we really didn't have much of a choice. The skiing was STEEP and firm, but much better than anticipated. The winds had given us a nice edgeable surface down the glacier.
Sam and Will both followed me as I made my way down the route. There were a few instances where I thought we were blocked off by crevasses, but after a little poking around I found sneaky routes through the icefield. I was proud of my routefinding skills, which I usually am not.
Sam and Will seemed to be skiing timidly, which was understandable as we were all a bit nervous. Eventually, we made it to the middle of the Ingraham glacier and started to see wands, which gave us confidence we were on the right track. Eventually the glacier became a mess, and the skiing got admittedly sketchy. We scratched our way down until we were on wide open slopes, free from any gaping holes. I felt a wave of relief, knowing we were basically home free.
I pointed out Cadaver Gap and told my partners we should go through it to take a shortcut to Camp Muir. Somehow, Will managed to convince me that it would not be in condition & we stupidly skipped over it without even checking. While Will is usually my best partner in the mountains, I think the cold and altitude understandably had him pretty messed up.
We kept skiing on the Ingraham Glacier in nice conditions, until I pulled out my phone and realized we had gone way too far. If we had continued, we would have gotten stuck on the lower Ingraham. My partners realized this as well, and we were all pretty frustrated and sad. Our blunder would cause us to retrace our steps and add another 700' of elevation gain.... Not the end of the world, but not what we wanted after such a huge day. Eventually, we skinned back up to Cadaver Gap and I saw that the route was in amazing shape. This turned out to be the best skiing of the day and we skied right back to Camp Muir. Once we reached Muir, we were all pretty gassed, but also psyched we had made it. Skiing from Muir back to Paradise is straightforward, fun and low-risk. I was checked out and ready for some low-risk skiing. Muir was an icy mess, but I didn't even care.... I'll add that I even ENJOYED skiing patchy blue ice after a long day.
Conditions only improved the closer we skied to Paradise. Eventually, the snow was soft and we were giggling through the fog and mashed potato snow.... Back to reality of tourists and cars at Paradise, what a strange sight!
Our team was happy. We had skied off the summit of Rainier, in JANUARY! It was not an easy day. The hardest part of the whole ordeal was certainly the cold. Rainier is never an easy ski or climb, so that much was expected, but the cold was a bit much. All three of us had minor frostbite on our right toes and my nose is still peeling from windburn. Experiencing the mountain in winter is a memory I will look back on, forever, but likely one that I'd like to experience only once :) Thanks for reading! Sorry for any errors, I typed up this trip report without any edits. I put Sam's trip report in the external link section, it is much more detailed than mine!