01 July 2013

Skiing from the Summit of Mt. Rainier

Standing on the summit of Mt. Rainier is an incredibly humbling and amazing experience. When we finally made it to the top, I couldn't stop thinking, "Holy shit. I can't believe it. I'm really standing on the top of this thing!" Followed shortly by the thought, "Oh dear god now I need to ski down!"

The adventure started on Saturday morning when 5 of us expertly Tetris'd a Mazda hatchback. We successfully fit all of our mountaineering and skiing gear for the trip up the Emmons route. Our stoke level was high as we drove the 2+ hours to Mount Rainier National Park, where we picked up permits and snagged the very last spot in the White River parking lot. We packed our gear and began the trek up to the InterGlacier.

Expert packers
Geared up and ready to go. Everyone else forgot their Tutus at home

So much greenery on the trail
Water feature!

With spots secured at Camp Schurman, we enjoyed a leisurely trip from the car at 4,400' to the InterGlacier, which sits about 6,800'. Once we hit snowline, we stashed some Rainier Beers (pronounced Rah-Nya) in a little snow cave and put our ski gear on. The ascent up the glacier was mostly your standard slog, with the exception of the Happy Birthday Banner Incident. That's right, you've all heard of the 10 Essentials...well, these people have an 11th, and it's a banner that literally says 'Happy Birthday'.

How did we discover this fun happenstance you ask? I wear a tutu in the mountains (name one thing that isn't more fun in a tutu...go on...just try) and we may have been telling people it was my birthday. Thus = birthday banner picture!

A look at InterGlacier. Overcast but never rained on us!
Happy. Birthday.
Skinning up InterGlacier. We had lots of company.
Almost. There. The mountain finally peaked out too!

We made it to camp in about 7 hours - I said we were going at a leisurely pace! - and set about making 'home' for the evening. Kyle, an expert backcountry traveler, built an ingenious system for melting snow using solar radiation, which came in handy once we realized we neglected to bring a second stove! Luckily, we had enough fuel, food, and good spirits that the forgotten stove was quickly, well, forgotten. We ate, shared a camp beer (carbo-loading!), and melted snow for the big climb ahead.

The tutu has landed in Schurman. I repeat, the tutu has landed.
Panorama from camp
Grandpa Max made a friend with Spidey and Spidey's pet flamingo

I had planned on heading to bed around 8pm, but the weather gods decided to put on a spectacular sunset instead. The clouds were beautiful, glowing in hues only appreciated from a place far removed from civilization, and I was compelled to watch. I have a hundred pictures and none of them do it justice. But here is a glimpse into my "bed time story" for the evening:

Looking west you could see the Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains

Looking east you can see the summit pyramid shadow


We finally crawled into our sleeping bags around 9:30 while it was still light outside. We did a little good-weather dance in our tents, and tried our darnedest to fall asleep. The alarm was set for 2am.

2:03am. Gross.
After what felt like sleeping for both an eternity and only a moment, we arose to calm, clear skies. The weather report had been calling for thunderstorms, so we were all pretty surprised (STOKED!) to see so many stars in the sky. With our skis on packs, ice-axes in hand, and climbing harnesses secured, we left camp about 3:20am to start the climb.

Our first crevasse encounter filled with icicles, lit by headlamp

Camp Schurman sits at 9,640' and climbs steadily up, up, up until you reach the summit cone. From camp, you can see at least 2,000 feet, so the climbing trail is pretty visible. "Looks easy enough," you think to yourself the night before the climb. Then you get on the mountain and realize the scale of things. People who seem right there are 20 minutes ahead of you, and you can climb for hours only to feel like you've only gone a few steps. Its maddening and rewarding all at the same time.

We had been climbing for only 30 minutes when the sun started to rise. Words cannot describe this sunrise. I mean, really. The three of us kept turning around and staring at it (click photos below to enlarge). I'm not afraid to admit that, at one point, I'm pretty sure I drooled on myself.
Cori turns back to appreciate the view.
The mountain was glowing red
And then it turned orange

Invigorated by the sunshine, we put our sunglasses on at 5am. After a quick food and blue bag break (not necessarily in that order) we were back at it. Conditions were good for bootpacking with crampons so that's what we did. With the warm temps we were concerned about a slushy slog, but in general everything froze and was well consolidated over night. We never once put our skis on for skinning - should have left those skins and ski crampons at camp!

Cori stripping down. Winthrop glacier below

My mood throughout the climb was quite variable. I would stop and check in with Cori and Ben below to see how they were feeling every 15 minutes or so (or whenever I was feeling particularly tuckered). We adopted a 10-point scale, and generally I was a in the 6-7 range, although one steep section with boot steps made for GIANTS put me in a foul mood, and I hit my low spot of 4.

Overall the route was in really great shape too. The boot track crossed a few little crevasses, but nothing you couldn't just step over. Then, about 12,000 feet, we encountered our first and only snow bridge. I regret the picture doesn't do it justice. This bridge spanned across a massive, gaping hole in the mountain and off to the climber's right side you could see down into the deep blue abyss below. It was breathtaking. That, or I was out of breath from altitude....And fear.

Imagine looking down 100's of feet on either side

At 12,400', on a steep section above the snow bridge we encountered our first climbers coming back from the summit. This was like a shot of adrenaline. "If people are coming down, we must be getting close!" I thought. Well, it was partially true, we were getting close, but those last 2,000' on Rainier are no joke, and we were in for some struggles ahead.

Nearing 13,000' we took one step and were suddenly slammed by the wind. It was like the mountain turned on a fan, set it at 25mph, and aimed it right at your face. Gusting to 40mph, one could say the wind was unpleasant, made all the worse by descending climbers kicking rime ice onto you. That's right, the last 1,500' were completely covered in ice. The path to the top wasn't even clearly trodden. I was thankful for the wands marking our path.

The wind may have been miserable, but the sun was out and I was on Rainier and DAMMIT I was going to make it to the top! Gathering beta from climbers on their way down, we learned that we would soon see a field of scree, and the summit was "not far beyond that". True to their word, we did eventually find our scree field, but "not far" is all in the eye of the beholder.

We struggled onward, trying not to fall over as our skis caught in the wind like sails, and finally, at 10:40am, 7 hours and 20 minutes after leaving camp, we stood on the Summit of Rainier!!!

Cori, Kristina, & Ben - Rainer Summitters!

Well, of COURSE Grandpa Max came too!

We stood on the true summit for less than 5 minutes. We split a Rainier beer, took pictures of other parties (who had also brought Rainiers to the top - duh!), and tried to enjoy the view. You could see all of the volcanoes: Baker, Glacier, Adams, Helen's, and Hood. Shucksan and Stewart looked pretty darn beautiful as well. I tried to take summit photos but my camera jammed and my iPhone died, so I took a few eyeball panoramas and locked those up for safe keeping in my brain box.

The summit was windy and cold and we were exhausted, so we found respite behind some rocks to recoup. I was pretty nauseous but forced a sandwich down. Cori and I were both shivering uncontrollably for a while as well, even though we weren't cold, but managed to get that under control once we descended a little.

View of the summit cone from our lunch spot. The tracks are the final ascent of the DC route.

An hour after summitting we were on our way down. We descended below the rocks where we put our skis on at 12:10pm. We very carefully started skiing down the steep rime ice on the top of the mountain. After skiing only about 500' we encountered a party who warned us about another skier who had fallen. We learned more later, but basically this guy fell on the steep, icy section at the top, blew out of both of his Dynafit bindings, lost both his skis when they dramatically and swiftly slid into a crevasse, and was only able to self-arrest on his third attempt using a whippet, just before he, himself would have been swept into the crevasse. His three partners, who were also skiing, took off their skis and downclimbed to him. Thankfully he was shaken but okay, with a few scrapes and probably a lot of bruises. Everyone was glad he came out relatively unscathed, and it's a good reminder to always be cautious when traveling in the backcountry, especially under dangerous conditions.

Happy skiers. Liberty Cap in background
Cori on the 800' section with descent turns

Overall the snow quality was fair. It's was a 9,000' run - what can you really expect?!? After negotiating the icy section at top, we found 800' of really good turns before it turn to mush. At the snow bridge we removed skis and once again used the rope to belay each other across to safety. Then it was pretty straight forward all the way back to camp. In all, it took 2 hours to decend.

We hiked all the way up there?

Serac field

So pretty
Once back in camp at 2pm, Kyle and Jenny, our camp stewards who opted not to climb, met us with open arms and banana pudding. And it was awesome. Overcome by my day, I laid down to take a quick cat nap and assess the damage. I was only a little bruised up.

Legs of a summiter

An hour of much needed R&R and it was time to pack up camp. We skied out of Schurman, traversed to the InterGlacier, and made haste to our stash of very-cold beers. Which were delicious.

Sun for decent on InterGlacier
I swapped back into my hiking boots (yes I was still wearing the tutu) and we began the worst part of any backcountry trip, the walk back to the car. Kyle laid down while we were loitering and I'm pretty sure he fell asleep like this:

Sleep on your backpack. The tried and true method of any real mountaineer

The mountain came out to say goodbye on the hike out. I still really can't believe I summitted. Thanks to Jesse and James for loaning me gear, and a special shout out to Kyle for giving such a fantastic calf massage. And of course to Jenny, Kyle, Ben, and Cori: you are the people that adventure dreams are made of - thanks for being awesome.

Until next time Rainier. You bring the mountain, I'll bring the beer =)


Allison Lee said...

way cool! So...how do I go with you next time? I promise I'll be nice to grandpa max...and I will wear a banana costume.

Kristina said...

Well, if you're going to wear the banana costume....

Michal said...

Holy moly you pics are amazing!