Technical climbing info
- Mountain: Mount Rainier
- Elevation: 14,411ft
- Route: Kautz Glacier, descent via Disappointment Cleaver
- Length: 9,000ft
- Grade: III, AI2-3
- Day 1: Begin at the Paradise Parking Lot, ascend to Camp Hazard via the Wilson Glacier.
- Day 2: Climb the Kautz Ice Chute and traverse the upper Nisqually Glacier to the summit crater. Descend the Disappointment Cleaver.
If we were to do this again, we would have chosen to shoot for Point Success and traverse the summit ridge rather than traversing the upper Nisqually Glacier. This looked much more direct and would have skipped over much of the glacier complications we faced high up on the peak. It would also allow for more steep climbing!
Back in the ring
Just like the North Ridge of Mount Baker not too long ago, Jessica and I were on the path to nailing a number of the Cascade classics. With this being her first season here, and my turn to take the sharp end of the rope, these classics were proving to be a whole lot of fun and good training for our soon trip to the Cordillera Blanca.
We had come out here for the July 4thweekend, shooting for the Kautz. Somehow we over andunder planned, bringing way too much of the wrong gear and shooting for a poor weather window, failing to get past Camp Hazard. Today we were back for redemption, cutting our gear by 1/3rdand planning for 2 days instead of 4.
A familiar approach
Hiking up the Skyline trail from Paradise, we could immediately tell that despite the past couple cold weeks, things had melted out quite a bit. A couple weeks prior, the lower Nisqually was a reasonably chill approach. This time, we had quite a few shenanigans/ninja moves to deal with to cross the glacier. Finding myself army crawling across a thin snowbridge over a monster crevasse that I could audibly hear crumbling from the inside, I couldn’t help but thinking that we may be shooting for this route too late in the season.
Having been here a couple weeks prior, we knew our way around the Wilson Glacier pretty well. We broke in a nice shortcut cutting directly above the Wilson Bench, unfortunately unlikely to be used by many so late in the season.
Arriving to Camp Hazard we found the flattest platform possible and plopped down. There was a group of 5 who advised us where they found running water under a rock across a snow field. Good on them for finding that. Not wanting to deal with the wind, I boiled water for our ramen inside tent. I somehow accidentally kicked over the half full pot. It dried up better than we expected. We lay our ropes down to cover the tent floor and blew up our ultralight pads to hit the hay. An easy day 1.
Our first error: A late start to a long day
We got a late start, which isn’t too unusual for us. Jessica and I typically move pretty fast when we are well rested, and we find that getting an extra hour or two of sleep ends up working out to shorter days. We rolled out of our sleeping bags at 4:30am and began packing up camp. With our up-and-over plan, we would be taking everything with us over the summit and back down.
By 6am we were ready to go and began moving up the rocky path to the upper camp. Having watched the looming serac above Camp Hazard collapse twice, we knew that we wouldn’t want to hang out here for very long. For a quick descent down onto the glacier, I threaded our rope around an anchor most likely left behind by a guiding service earlier in the season and rappelled down. Jessica followed and after a bit of funky movement, we pulled our rope and made our way to the first ice “pitch”
Being reasonably low-grade ice with plenty of huge penitents to step on, Jess and I put a few meters of rope in-between us and simul-climbed up. We were physically and mentally feeling pretty good as we watched the glacier below move off into the distance.
As we climbed higher, we could see that the 2ndsection getting steeper, icier, and dirtier. I drilled in an pretty uncomfortable ice screw anchor belay station. It was already pretty late in the morning and some debris started raining down on us as I began to lead the pitch. The ice was as dirty as it looked, and I was feeling less and less comfortable the higher I got above the anchor with my truly dull crampons. As I pulled a screw off my harness, I somehow dropped one. I watched as in slow motion our beautiful brand-new orange Laser Speed Light screw bounced down penitente after penitente, getting tinier and tinier far into the nether below. I didn’t really care about the $80 it cost for the piece of hardware- a small price to pay for a classic route as such. I cared much more about not having enough screws to climb a full rope length! Not wanting to runout too far above my single piece of protection, I climbed another 10 meters and drilled in my last two screws for another anchor. I belayed Jessica up as she hacked her way up the debris-filled dirty ice. Another short pitch of ice and the garbagy ice turned into neve snow. I banged in a picket, belayed Jessica up, and we switched back into simulclimbing mode.
Now we had the glacier ahead. This was the section I was not looking forward to. Fun times were below us and now we had a lot of walking to do. I knew that there were two options:
Option A, “The Classic”: Head west to traverse the upper Nisqually glacier all the way to the top-out of the Ingraham Glacier. I had the sneaking suspicion that the upper Nisqually would be broken up this late in the season with the potential for some sketchy route finding. This is the route that is stated in the guide books.
Option B, “The False Summit”: Continue up to Point Success (the false summit), and traverse to crater rim to the top-out of the Ingraham Glacier. This seems like a much more direct route, with an optional 3rdsection of steep(ish) ice chute. It also looks a lot more direct and straightforward from the top of the ice chutes.
Option B looked more fun and significantly faster to execute, but there were some clear warning signs of avalanche hazards high up on the slopes. We figured we would take our chances with Option A, and we ventured off onto the big glacier that we did not yet have eyes on.
Our second error: Ignoring the beta
Although this was our second error, I believe that this was our first critical one. Knowing that we were late in the season and having chatted with somebody who had climbed 3 weeks prior stating that the Upper Nisqually looked “bad”, we really had no reason to believe that things would have gotten better up there. In fact, we only had reason to believe that things would have gotten worse with the warming weather. We ever so slowly weaved our way through the huge crevasse fields, gauging sketchy snow bridge after sketchy snow bridge, realigning our path over and over to be perpendicular to the crevasses.
Not wanting to take any risks as the day was heating up, we made slow progress.
Our third error: Autopilot
Making our way to the descent route, I allowed my brain to turn off. We were late on the summit, all alone, and we were low on food and water. The wind had picked up quite a bit, but I had been up and down the Disappointment Cleaver quite a few times in the past. Autopilot time.
Tired and partially dehydrated, autopilot completely failed us. This was, however, my first time on the Disappointment Cleaver in two full years. For the past couple years I had been climbing Rainier in the earlier season when the Ingraham Direct is still the primary route. It seemed that the route had taken a new variation skimming against the Emmons Glacier. Somewhere on the rock bands above the Ingraham Glacier, we managed to get significantly off course.
Jessica and I spent the better part of two hours navigating extremely loose steep rock terrain. We scoured the rock bands and snow gullies for a reasonable way down onto the glacier below. We were just met with more loose rock and cliffs dropping deep into the Ingraham Glacier. Drops far too deep into the glacier to rappel, and far too wild to safely climb out of.
Eventually as the sun began dip behind the mountainous backdrop, we saw the small glisten of a red route marker wand. We had a number of sketchy loose rock traverse moves to get there, seriously exposed over a dead drop into the Ingraham below us. Jess and I moved one limb at a time, bracing for the other to fall with each movement. After a few high stress minutes, we were back to safety.
Capture the flag
We quickly learnt our lesson. No more autopilot. We moved from flag to flag. The trail was grossly obvious, but we didn’t want to take any more chances. By now, the sun was looking like it would set imminently. We quickly blasted past the Ingraham Flats campsite, catching a glimpse of Camp Muir below us in the distance. Wow, we still had a long way to go. It was after 8pm.
With how well we were moving, it wouldn’t have been obvious that we had been climbing since 6am that morning. We turned on our headlamps as the night set in and the winds picked up. We didn’t think twice blinking the sand out of our eyes from Cathedral Gap, and just kept moving. The overhead rockfall hazard was also a good inspiration to keep us moving.
We finally arrived to Camp Muir, now in the total dark. We finally began hitting a wall. Maybe our brains decided we were finally safe and our adrenalin finally decided to stop pumping. We still had a few thousand feet to descend, and at our pace, I realized it would take far too long.
“I am so fucking tired”
“I am so fucking tired”, I said to Jessica as our pace began to slow to a grind. We debated if we wanted to stop for the night. It was 11pm. Unwilling to make the call, we decided to melt some water, eat our last bits of food, and go for it.
Unpacking the stove, we realized that we had packed a whole extra liter of water that we forgot about. We chugged it, ate whatever scraps we had left, and stood up. I could feel my blood pumping a bit faster. I felt good.
We located a series of glissade chutes and slid down them one after another. In the middle of the nigh now, we began to find ourselves having fun at this point. We reflected on the fact that we were lucky to be here. How few people get to experience such things? We turned off our headlamps and admired the deep red moon and the sky full of stars above us.
We finally arrived to the car at 2am. We drove back to Seattle, arriving at 5am. We crashed in bed by 6am.
Up Next, Did you know this Route was beside you the whole time?
We got a nice late start at 5am to begin our approach up to the base of the Fuhrer Finger. We had blue skies overhead, but the weather forecast upgraded our possibility of storms from “slight chance” to just regular “chance”. Across the horizon, Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens were already covered with storm clouds as well. Taking a chance on the “chance”, we made the call to move up. If a storm did start to come in, we’d just have to figure something out.[…]