Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mt. Rainier 2009, Climb 2 - Kautz Glacier in a day

So, Greg and I wimped out of Sufferfest 2009 – with an epic carry-over up the Emmons, down the DC, traverse to the Kautz, up the Kautz and down the Emmons – instead deciding that pizza sounded much more appetizing than carrying large packs up and over the peak twice. Therefore, it was time to make up for it and do a car-to-car climb of the Kautz Glacier, descending via the Disappointment Cleaver. After resting for two days at my Aunt and Uncles house overlooking Lake Washington in Seattle – eating copious amounts of cheesecake and blaring classic rock over their speaker system (we had scared them off to their cabin up north, and had the house to ourselves), we headed back to Mt. Rainier; this time to the crowded Paradise trailhead instead of White River.

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Arriving at the ranger station, we registered for our climb the following day – and found to our amusement that the rangers were still trying to figure out how to enter “through climbers” (those not stopping to camp anywhere) into their system, so they ended up registering us for summit camp – a place we sure didn’t want to end up staying at considering a weather system was due to come in Sunday afternoon and it was going to be quite cold and windy up there.

In a day you ask? Well, it’s not uncommon for people to go ahead and climb Rainier in a day – though most ascents are 2-3 day trips. We kind of figure why camp and carry a tent though if you don’t have to! I'd be lying if I said there isn't a trick – “what is it?” you might be thinking? Well, I think everyone has their own little tricks. Some train hard, get acclimated, sleep and eat healthy, but I’ve got a little trick that I’m going to share about big car to car days. What is it? Simple… Cheesecake. Deep dark double-chocolate cheesecake (DDDCC). Greg unfortunately had to rely on the standard training methods for success as he is rather lactose intolerant (don’t get caught sleeping in the back of the same car or tent with him after he’s ingested dairy products), but I made sure to ingest a healthy dose of DDDCC after a parking lot pasta dinner, and another first thing in the morning at 2AM when we woke up for our alpine start. Let me tell you – there’s nothing better to start off an alpine day than DDDCC.

Hitting the trail (5400’) right at 3AM, we saw that our nearly full moon was in inconveniently in the process of setting a couple hours before sunrise. Luckily though, I’d been on the beginning of the trail the year prior in similar snow coverage, and so we quickly made our way to the approximate area of the branch-off where we would head across the lower Nisqually glacier to “the fan”. As we crossed the Nisqually, the sky began to slowly gain some hues of brightness, and the mountain began to take shape in front of us. Behind, Mt. Adam dominated the pink and blue horizon, highlighting a beautiful panorama. Greg and I had lost a little time finding our way off the main Muir trail and onto the Nisqually in the dark, but quickly gained pace as we headed up “the fan” and above – going from only gaining about 1500 feet in the first 2 hours, to averaging 1500+ feet an hour when moving up to the turtle and the Kautz.

Around 4500’ up the route, we encountered a few tents of people camping on the route, and a little higher up as we approached Camp Hazard (~11,300’) we passed some people coming down the route having camped the night before up higher (and maybe having summitted that morning?). Near Camp Hazard there was a fixed line rappel down a small cliff to keep from having to hike up to the ice cliffs and then back down (saving those who used it about 200 vertical feet of scrambling), but detesting fixed lines, and hoping to find some black barrels for our morning “blue bags”, we continued hiking through Camp Hazard to the ice cliffs (sans finding a place to deposit the morning’s business, thus requiring a S)(*&y carryover), hiked down a couple hundred feet below the ice-cliffs, and then traversed over to the ice-pitches of the route.
The two ice pitches of the route were the “money pitches” – the best part of the whole thing. Varying between 50-60 degrees of slightly rotten, but safe, ice, the pitches were not difficult by any means, but were a lot of fun to literally run up using all four spiked appendages, and simul-climb with Greg. Having only a 100’ rope and 6 ice screws, I ran it out about 45-50’ between screw placements trying to keep from having to re-stock gear as much as possible on each “pitch”. Along the sides of the pitches were moderate to huge ice pillars, giant neve penitentes, lining the route and giving it a surreal atmosphere. The also were handy rappel anchors for those descending the route. It was beautiful. On the second pitch we encountered a party rappelling down, and to keep from receiving too much ice-fall from them I went ahead and climbed as fast as I could to get to their side and out of the firing range. Greg and I even managed to climb the entire pitch, with one anchor built to re-supply me with ice-screws, in the time it took them to set-up and do one rappel down the face. We were moving quick, and it felt GREAT.

At the top of the ice section, the climb tapered back off to ~2400’ of slogging up snow-cupped snow. We followed the intermittent tracks working their way up towards the top, and as we crested a rock formation around 13000’ were greeted by some amazingly beautiful, waste to chest high, thin ice flakes which we basically slalomed through to get back on the snow field continuing up the glacier towards the summit. At this point we were maintaining about 1700’ feet per hour as our climbing pace and decided to do our best to reach the summit sub 9 hours. We could feel our legs burning and lungs working hard in the slightly thinner atmosphere, but kept pushing, receiving a boost from the increasing winds at times (luckily travelling up hill), to reach the top in about 9 hours and 18 minutes – not bad for two guys just out for a days fun!

We hung around at the top (14, 410’) briefly as we were getting blown sideways and frozen solid by 80-90 mph winds (the winds on the summit and crater rim were much higher than those just down the slope a bit which were probably only 20-30 mph), got a couple pictures, grabbed another layer, and started descending towards the Disappointment Cleaver.

The Cleaver was really interesting this year in that large seracs, and a huge single crevasse caused the route to be strongly diverted to the climber’s right directly above the cleaver. Last year at a similar time when I was on the route it was able to go straight up the face through where these obstacles now sat. It made for beautiful scenery though to admire on our way down to Muir. Lower down where we dropped into Cathedral Gap within site of camp Muir, the winds which were howling on the upper mountain blasted us like with scree like a sandblaster which made me jealous of Greg’s goggles, but he needed them much more than I as I was travelling directly in front of him and kicking up more rocks and dirt for him to be blasted with.

Arriving at Muir, we finally deposited our blue bags, and had originally planned on making water since we had never added to the 2 liters a piece we started the day with, but feeling lazy we just lounged around for about 30-40 minutes chatting with the climbing ranger and snacking. Finally, we started moving down the Muir snow field, boot skiing as we went, and about an hour later were back at the car with a total car to car (or should I say truck to truck) time of 13 hrs flat. What a great day! Then it was back to Seattle, where we cooked up a steak dinner and drank martinis with my Aunt, Uncle and cousin to finish up. It was, well…. Brilliant. A 9000’ day on ice and snow, and a steak dinner. What more could a guy ask for?!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Mt. Rainier 2009, Climb 1

After picking up food for a few days on the mountain, Baby Greg (aka “the Kid” aka “the Animal”) and I headed towards Mt. Rainier Tuesday afternoon. Arriving at the ranger station at White River campground, we spoke with the ranger about conditions on Liberty Ridge – the route we had come to the mountain from San Diego to climb. The ranger mentioned that a party had just finished the route, but reported significant rockfall hazard below thumb rock and thin ice/snow conditions up high – typical poor late season route conditions. Talking it over, Greg and I decided that since we had a week around the area and the weather forecast was good, we would go ahead and jaunt over to check out the route for ourselves. Having not been on this side of the mountain before, we weren’t very certain of approach times, but looking over the map we figured we could make Thumb Rock pretty easily in 1 day if conditions on the route were climbable, and so checked in for Thumb Rock camping on night one (the following night 7/1), climbing the rest of the route the next day, with a possible stop at Camp Shurman the following day (7/2) on the way out if it was getting late. Our goal was for a 2-day climb, but we logged in an extra couple days in case we took longer so that the rangers wouldn’t feel obligated to start search efforts due to our over ambitious planning should we fall behind and not return in time.
Getting up at 0300 on Wednesday (7/1), we finished packing our gear, threw down some food, and headed up from the trailhead (4400’) around 0420. We purposely started slow, letting our muscles warm up for what would hopefully be a long couple days ahead, working our way up the maintained ~3.2 mile trail to Glacier Camp. As we hiked up the trail, the sun began painting the peak in a pink mountain glow as it rose above the horizon. This beautiful mountain glow excited both of us with the trip ahead, and moving up the trail calmed our nerves about the climb ahead. Around 0545-0600ish we arrived at Glacier Camp, and as we rounded the corner into camp, a “trail runner” came bounding down the trail from the toilets above us. We were both confused to see a “trail runner” at that hour of the morning, but stopped at the entrance to the camp so I could go off to use the toilets in hopes of avoiding the infamous “blue bag” carry out system. I ambled the 1/8 mile to the open-air toilets (with side by side seating even for those so inclined to have bathroom buddies), and proceeded to do the morning duties – on the way back, however, I noticed there was a medium-large black bear not far off the trail below. I watched him waddle through the brush for a little while, and then proceeded back to Greg. We re-saddled our packs, and continued through Glacier camp where we encountered the “trail runner” – turns out he had also recently enjoyed doing the morning duties, only to have his session interrupted by a wet bear nose sniffing (and touching) his backside! He took off, slowly at first, and as the bear continued to follow him, he started sprinting down the trail away from said bear. An interesting start to the morning none-the-less, and I was glad I hadn’t been a few minutes earlier to the bathroom facilities.
Greg and I continued to work our way up out of Glacier Camp, up Glacier Basin and to St. Elmo pass. At this point we were starting to cover ground pretty quickly, made our way over the pass to the Winthrop Glacier, tied in, and crossed the glacier using footprints made a day or two prior to show us the way. The Winthrop was in great shape, with a nearly straight shot across it, and we continued to traverse it at around 7400’, then traversed the slopes between is and the Carbon Glacier. Arriving within site of the Carbon, we took a long break to nap, refuel, and watch the goat families walking around the snow fields before continuing on towards the Carbon. Still around 7500’, we encountered a group coming towards us. They were coming straight from the base of Liberty and making their way towards the Emmons route. They had started up two days prior, spending one night at Glacier Camp, and the previous night at the Carbon, and had earlier in the current day tried to attain Liberty Ridge via the melted out rock ridge at its base, and via an ice chute just to the right side, only to be turned back by serious rock and ice-fall hazard. They continued on towards the Emmons, and Greg and I watched the ridge and pondered for a while how “intelligent” we were feeling. In the end though, after listening to repeated rockfall and icefall along the surrounding faces, and thinking to the climbing reports, we decided to head back to the trailhead and try another route later on. Liberty Ridge will continue to be there, but we wouldn’t be if we caught that rockfall head-on - so, it will have to wait until next year…
As we traversed back, we could see the other group of 4 about 30-45 minutes ahead of us… and see them as they turned off the original traverse and started to head up towards Camp Schurman for a go at the Emmons Glacier route. As we approached their track, I began wondering about something a little more audacious – instead of decending and driving around the mountain, why not climb up over the Emmons, go down the Disappointment Cleaver (DC) to meet Adam and my SDMRT buddies coming up that route, than traverse to the Kautz Glacier, and climb that back over, down the Emmons, and return to the car that way. We pondered the idea, going back and forth as we headed across the Glacier… arriving at the split in the tracks where we would either head back to St. Elmo pass or up towards Camp Schurman, I turned uphill – with intentions of heading to Camp Schurman and doing our “up and over twice” plan. We camped at Schurman (~9430’), sleeping in late (until about 0530) on the 2nd, and were the last to leave camp at about 0715 that morning. Even carrying our big packs though, we were averaging well over 1000’ per hour of elevation gain. I could tell I wasn’t in quite the shape I hoped to be though, and I started to wonder if my legs had two more days of carrying full packs, especially on the steep terrain of the Kautz. Proceeding up, we started reeling in a few skiers that had left at the time we woke up. At around 13200’ we passed them, with one complaining of altitude problems (they ended up turning around about 700’ below the summit). At 13700’ we encountered the four guys who had also come from Liberty on their way back down (they started around 0330), chatted for a bit, then continued up the last bit of the climb towards the summit.
About 400-500’ below the summit though, we decided that it would be more fun to go back down the Emmons now, rest a day or two, and make a single-day push on the Kautz. This was in part because we weren’t sure how low we would have to go to traverse to the Kautz, and hauling large packs around just for fun just didn’t sound interesting. So we left our packs about 400’ below the summit, and pushed up to the top, arriving at the 14,410’ summit in about 4 hours and 50 minutes to average just a little better than 1000’ per hour, even with our nice social visit at 13,700’ and carrying our large packs most of the way! Not amazing, but we were happy with it none-the-less.
At the summit we met the skier, Amar, who had left Camp Schurman about 20 minutes ahead of us, and with whom we had been maintaining pace with on the way up. We also met Frankie and Scott who were camping directly on the summit… and Frankie had brought his controllable air-foil kite!! Strangely though, there was nearly no wind on the summit (Greg was in only a long sleeve button-up t-shirt), and so the kite flying was unsuccessful, but fun to watch the attempt. We hung out with Amar, Fankie and Scott for about 45 minutes, then headed down to our packs to brew up some water for the descent. After brewing up about 1.5 liters of water, we shouldered our packs, and started hauling down the nearly 5000’ to Camp Schurman. Along the way we passed a couple other groups, including our 4 friends from Liberty Ridge, covering the whole descent from our packs to Schurman in about 52 minutes. Conditions were ideal for descent, with a soft, wet layer of snow allowing us to basically jog/boot ski down the glacier, minding the occasional snow bridge. Changing socks at Schurman to help save our wet, sweaty, feet from destruction, we chatted with IMG guide Andy Polloczek a bit about the mountain, then continued down, moving fast down the soft snow which was in perfect conditions for descent, and arrived at the trailhead 2.5-3 hours later.
Moving fast towards the trailhead as we were both incredibly thirsty, didn’t want to boil water, and my iodine tablets weren’t dissolving for some strange reason, we headed straight towards the trailhead water fountain. Just on the other side of the fountain was a very large group of ~8 skiers heading up. As we approached them I started having the funny feeling that my friend Kelly was with them (she had mentioned she might be on Rainier this week), and low and behold there she was! We chatted for a bit about mountain conditions and trips, wished them well, and continued out of the park to some well deserved pizza and rest - rest for a what we’re hoping will be a one-day push of the Kautz Glacier (slightly less than 9000’ vertical) on Sunday. And a good rest it’s been so far, at my gracious Aunt and Uncles place with a beautiful view of Lake Washington, double chocolate cheesecake, and a bald eagle perched in a tree outside. Ta an saol go maith… Wish us luck!