Ice fall, Winds and Beautiful Blue Skies on Mt. Rainier
Our group of mostly long time Mountain Madness climbers Matthias, David, Krista and Krista all met at Second Ascent the morning of July 8th. There had been some last minute changes to our Mt. Rainier trip roster and repeat Mountain Madness clients David and Matthias joined the trip only a few weeks prior to the climb. However having climbed with MM before, their skills and excitement were more than adequate for the trip. We completed our gear check, packed up and began the drive south to Paradise, our jumping off point for the five day climb.
Mt. Rainier. Mountain Madness photo
After a little bit of a run-around trying to check in we were set and ready to begin our hike under a cloudless blue sky. As many know, the first mile is almost always crowded with day hikers and tourists and this day was no different. But soon we would hardly see another team, except in passing or in the distance. After a little more than an hour after leaving the crowded trail to Camp Muir we turned down a steep snow slope which required a belayed glissade, down to the still snow-covered lateral moraine of the Nisqually Glacier. We crossed onto the center of the glacier and set up our camp with all of Mt. Rainier towering above us.
Krista and Krista at our first camp on the Nisqually Glacier . Ian Nicholson photo
The next morning we awoke to another day of beautiful blue skies and we set off towards our next camp, ‘The Castle’. The normal “Fan” approach to gain the Wilson glacier was melted out so we found a route further to the right which involved some steeper snow climbing next to the massive Nisqually ice fall. Along the way on the lower Wapowety Cleaver we stopped for some ice climbing training in a spectacular crevasse.
David practicing ice climbing techniques on the Wilson Glacier. Ian Nicholson photo
After a few hours of refining techniques and skills needed for the infamous ice wall on the upper Kautz we continued up another hour and a half to our camp for the night. The Castle Camp is a spectacular camp perched at 9,200ft on the Wapowety, and we enjoyed a dinner of deep dish pizza along with fantastic views of Mt, Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood and even Mt. Jefferson, which is over 100 miles away.
The next day we awoke and packed up camp in strong winds and began our climb up the unrelentingly steep “Turtle” snowfield whose name derives from its slight resemblance to a Turtle shell when viewed from afar. Above 10,000ft most of the climbers on our team really started to feel the altitude and the Turtles strenuous nature. At the top of the Turtle we reached our high camp at 10,800ft, unofficially named ‘The New Camp Hazard’. The old Camp Hazard which is no longer used is a few hundred feet higher but heavily threatened by icefall and seracs. By mid-day when we arrived at camp, the wind had really started to blow with steady 40 – 50mph winds and occasional stronger gusts. The wind was extremely violent and even the simplest tasks became involved endeavors. We began setting up camp and improving the existing tent-high rock walls to try and buffer our tents from the wind, but ultimately we would suffer two broken tent poles. Even lighting the stoves was an arduous task. Our group tried to go to bed but during the night the tents flapped incessantly and I don’t think anyone was able to sleep much. Fortunately, the forecast for the following day indicated that the winds for the next day were supposed to die down. Going to sleep that night everyone was nervous but excited to make a push for the summit despite the winds, so we thought we would go and give it our best shot.
Summit morning. Krista Wassermann photo
Upon arising at 3:30am, the winds had not died down in the least, but the group was willing to give it a good try. In the dark we started making our way up the hill out of camp. We passed another party, still in tents who were holding due to radio calls from the other side of the mountain informing them how bad the winds were.
Our tents getting hammered by winds at the new Camp Hazard at 10,800ft. Ian Nicholson photo
At 11,200ft we made the traverse over the rock step at the top of the Wapowety and traversed below the massive Katuz ice cliff. Right before we crossed below the gulley to gain the step, suddenly piles of ice blocks came crashing down right in front of us giving the group a strong adrenaline rush. After the ice blocks ceased falling we ran across the gulley, exposed to ice fall but keeping an eye out for any more activity up high. Once below the ice wall we began our climb up two full length pitches of awesome alpine ice to gain the hanging bench between the steps.
The group on the first ice step on the Katuz ice cliff. Ian Nicholson photo
After moving together we reached the base of the second and crux ice step. Stretching 350 feet above us this towering ice cliff is an impressive site to behold. The group quickly dispatched it with their newly found ice climbing skills, relishing in the “thud…thud….kick….kick” movements of ice climbing.
Krista and Krista on the crux second ice step of the Kautz cliff. Ian Nicholson photo
Once past the ice wall we made our way up complex glacier travel, winding around gaping crevasses. At this point the wind was dying down to a more manageable 25 – 35mph. Above 13,000ft there were several exciting crevasse bridges and it appeared we had the mountain to ourselves; no other people in sight. After nearly 12 hours of hard fought terrain we pulled into the summit crater, crossed the summit rim and took the final steep steps up the Columbia Crest and the summit of Mt. Rainier!!!!
The group on the summit of Mt. Rainier 14,411ft! Ian Nicholson photo
Because of the late hour we didn’t spend much time on the summit. We snapped a few summit photos, signed the summit register and down we went. We made fast progress down the upper glacier and after a few double rope length lowers we were below the ice cliff, over the rock step in Wapowety cleaver and back in camp just before dark. The wind had now almost completely stopped, making camp infinitely nicer. We ate dinner, melted some water and went to bed. The next day we woke up to light snow falling and our first overcast skies of the trip.
The group back in Paradise after a successful summit! Ian Nicholson photo
After breaking camp we walked down the turtle snowfield and crossed the Wilson and Nisqually glaciers, climbing back up the lateral moraine to Glacier Vista. Shortly after that we were back to our starting place, Paradise, completely elated that all of the group had achieved a life-long goal of climbing Mt. Rainier.
~ MM Guide Ian Nicholson