July 2014: I had a tall peak (Mount Adams) and a glacier climb (Mount Baker) under my belt and now it was time to tackle what locals simply call “The Mountain”. At 14,411 ft, Mount Rainier is the tallest peak in the state of Washington. It attracts thousands of climbers every year, who come from all over the world to meet the challenge of climbing to the summit. The success rate is only about 505 and there is and average fatality rate of 3 climbers per year. People come here to train for big mountains, such as Denali and Everest. Rainier provides the perfect big mountain experience, with huge glaciers and unpredictable weather. If I was going to reach my goal of climbing all the Washington volcanoes, then sooner or later I would have to tackle this one. The time had arrived.
Most people who climb Rainier start with either the Disappointment Cleaver (DC) route or the Emmons route. Although challenging, they afford the least technical routes to the summit and therefore attract the vast majority of climbers. I really don’t like crowds in the mountains, and I was looking for something a bit more technical in nature. There was a good chance I’d only climb this mountain once in my life, so my plan was to do it my way. I chose the little known Kautz route on the south side of the mountain. Only about 4% of climbers take this route. It was steep and direct, with the crux being about 400 feet of 50-70 degree glacial ice climbing up the spectacular Kautz ice chute. I was nervous as heck!
Due to the technical nature of the climb, I chose to go with a guide service –Alpine Ascents International. Some people feel that this takes away from the freedom of climbing, but I was not experienced enough yet to lead on ice and I felt much safer knowing that we had very experienced leaders. We met up in Seattle for a meet and greet and gear check. The next morning we hopped in the van to shuttle down to the mountain.
We started off with throngs of people at the Paradise Visitor Center. Since we had a planned 4 days on the mountain, with group gear, climbing gear and food, my pack weighed nearly 60 pounds! Unlike those going up the DC route, there would be no mountain huts or rangers where we were going. We had to have our own tents and enough gear to be self sufficient. The day was clear and the winds were ripping as we started up, the snow beginning right at the parking lot.
We followed the standard trail for about an hour until the part where most people take a right to head up to Panorama Point and Camp Muir. Instead, we took a left and here is where we left the crowds behind. From now on we would be traveling on rope teams all the way to the top. From Glacier Vista, we had to drop down to the Nisqually Glacier, which we would be crossing. There were numerous small crevasses on the glacier and we passed near the impressive Nisqually Icefall.
From here, it was uphill again, slowly but surely with our heavy packs. We went up a gully, which put us on the Wilson Glacier. From here, we reach a ridgeline known as the Wapowety Cleaver and followed it until we reached our first camp, at 8700 ft. It was a bluebird day and the views from camp were stunning! We made water, had hot soup and food, and passed out. Fortunately, the next day we had the relatively late wake-up time of 7am.
I slept like a rock and before I knew it, it was time to get up, pack up and head up. Almost immediately after leaving camp, we reached a short and steep snowfield known at the Turtle Snowfield. We left under foggy skies with two rope teams. One member of our party had decided to go back down, after struggling to get to camp the previous day. One of the guides had to escort him down so we were now down to three guides and seven climbers. The going was slow, as the air got thinner, but we reached the top of the hill and arrived at our high camp, at approximately 11,000 ft. This area is sometimes referred to as Camp Hazard.
From high camp, we had an intimidating view of our route for the next day. We stood at the top of a 30 foot rocky drop off. Straight ahead, we could see the treacherous and beautiful Kautz Ice Chute, surrounded by crevasses and ice cliffs. This would be the most difficult section of the climb. I had been watching videos and looking at photos of this section for months, but nothing compared to seeing it in person. I fell asleep that night with my nerves in a ball, with a planned wake-up time of 1 am.
The wind raged all night and continued to rage when we got up. Nevertheless, it was on with harnesses and lots of layers. No more waiting, the time had come! We started off by rappelling off the rock cliff, which is not very high but resides above a steep glacier. Plus, rappelling in the dark with 45 mph winds can be a bit nerve wracking. Then it was time to put the crampons on.
There is a short gully traverse to reach the bottom of the ice chute, which is an extremely treacherous area. The gully is a funnel for all snow, rock and ice that breaks off the cliffs above. In an instant, avalanches the size of rivers can come crashing through. Fortunately, we were crossing it very early, when things were still frozen. The traverse is also very short and we were across in a matter of minutes.
Now we stood at the bottom of the ice chute, where the real technical climbing would begin. We climbed as one, all on the same rope, while we were belayed from above. This technique was more efficient but also tricky. If you were too slow, you would drag down the person above you, if you were too fast, the rope behind you would pull. We used the picks of our axed and the front points of our crampons to inch our way up. My calves were on fire!
About ten minutes after starting, I looked up to find my next move when out of the dark, a piece of ice the size of a baseball struck me smack in the face. I have never been punched before but I imagine that is what it feels like! The pain was sharp but the fear was greater. I pictured tons of debris coming down in the dark, ripping us from the mountain at any moment. We were tenuously clinging to the ice with mere millimeters of steel points connecting us to the mountain. Finally, the pain dulled and I collected my nerves. My team member yelled “Are you ok?” Me: “I think so…” Nothing to do but keep climbing. Then I heard the climber behind me exclaim “She is bleeding!” Sure enough, I was leaving a trail of blood droplets in my path. My adrenaline had kicked in now, and I felt no pain, only the cold wind. When we reached the belay station, we found out that our guide had taken a worse hit than me. His jaw was broken and already beginning to swell. After a quick discussion, we made the choice to continue climbing to the top of the ice chute, where we would re-assess the situation. Then something amazing happened.
The sun came up and we witnessed the extreme exposure of our precarious position, along with the most spectacular sunrise. All I could see were miles of clouds, with the summits of Mount Adams and Mount St Helens poking through. The shadow of Mount Rainier dominated the view. My split lip was forgotten, this is what I came for! With the light, we could see down the ice cliffs we had climbed up, and it was a sobering sight indeed. My rope team member refused to even look until I convinced him that he would regret missing this sunrise!
After 400 feet of technical climbing, we reached the top of the ice chute. We still had over 2500 feet of climbing over glaciers to get to the top, but now I knew I could do it! Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. The concern was that our guide’s jaw was getting worse. Of our three guides, two of them were actual Sherpas, including the injured one. I have to say that they are some of the most amazing people I have ever met, strong and generous. Despite his pain, he knew how hard we had trained to reach the summit, so he swallowed some Ibuprofin and made the decision to continue climbing.
On the glacier, we crossed a few sketchy snow bridges, but I was in the zombie mode of glacier slogging, taking a step then trying to catch my breath, then another step. I felt a jerk on my rope and stopped, thinking that my rope-mate had slowed down. After a moment, there was still tension on the rope so I glanced back, only to see that he had broken through the snow bridge and was halfway inside the crevasse! I had barely even felt a tug since he caught himself with his arms. He crawled out, shaken but unharmed. We would not be crossing that bridge on the way back!
Finally, seven hours after leaving camp, we reached the summit at approximately 9am. The wind was still ripping and I was wearing every single layer that I had. Most of us were so exhausted that we plopped down to scarf a quick snack. I had the energy for only once picture, then it was time to go. We had a long way down and our guide was in need of medical attention.
We descended the way we came, rappelling the ice chute and climbing up the rock cliff that we had rappelled down in the morning. As I arrived in camp, another climber says to me, “Your tent is gone”. HAHA very funny, I thought then went down to pack up my camp…except that I had no camp. My entire tent had blown away in the wind with everything in it, including my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and clothes. My tent-mate lost all of her stuff as well. Turns out someone had left the inner door open when we left the tent was history. I figure it is probably living at the bottom of a crevasse and will get spit out in a few decades. Since there was nothing we could do, I took a power nap (as best I could in the blowing sand) while everyone else packed up. I was kind of excited that I wouldn’t have to carry down all that weight until they asked me to carry the giant cook pot, since I had no gear….oh well.
We were supposed to spend another night on the mountain but we booked it out as fast as we could, so that the guide could get medical attention. His jaw was swollen to the size of a baseball. We half walked, half glissaded all the way down to the Nisqually Glacier, where we roped up in pea soup fog to traverse back across the glacier. As soon as we unroped, two of the guides ran full speed to the parking lot, to meet a waiting ambulance. We found out later that he needed to have surgery. I admire his strength and commitment to getting us to the summit in spite of his injury.
This climb was everything I had hoped for. It was a physical and technical challenge, full of surprises. We didn’t see another person for three days, except on the summit. The mountain was scary and beautiful and gave me an experience to remember. The guides and climbers were amazing and I would definitely recommend Alpine Ascents to anyone wishing to use a guide service on Rainier. Only two more volcanoes to go! (Part 4 coming soon: Mount St Helens).