Thursday, July 6th I flew into Seattle and met Mark Connell at the airport, a former bay area resident who now lives in Colorado (we had exchanged emails and such before and knew some people in common). After collecting our luggage and picking up the rental car, we headed off to the Tukwila REI to get fuel for our stove and then drove down to Elbe to approach Mount Rainier National Park.
Initially we had three people for the rope team (including myself), but the third guy, Martin, had to drop out due to an injury over July 4th weekend. So over pizza I discussed with Mark how we would handle crevasse rescue as a 2-person team. Martin had referred me to Brian, who was heading up with another group that would be in the area. Initially I figured that if Mark and I felt insecure about hauling each other out, then we could always climb in close proximity to Brian's team. But eventually we decided that we could be self-sufficient.
We headed off to bivy on Skate Creek Road (not far from the park entrance) under cloudy conditions, with a couple of droplets of rain. Worrisome, but it seemed to improve overnight, and by Friday morning we were on our way. The weather webcam from Paradise had shown various combinations whiteouts and lenticular clouds from the week before. But as we pulled into the Jackson Visitor Center parking lot (5500') we could see Rainier in all its glory, under blue skies with no clouds that we could see.
We got our permit and marched off at 8am, up the paved trail to Glacier Vista (6300'), which soon became patchy snow. Descended about 400' from there, crossed the lateral moraine to the lower Nisqually glacier and roped up around 10am.
It was initially slow going. We were each carrying one ice axe, one ice hammer, two pickets, several screws and enough pulleys, etc. to set up a ZxC rescue system. We looked at heading up the Fan to the lower part of Wapowety cleaver, but there was a lot of loose debris in it, and we weren't sure how much rockfall we would have to deal with. Instead, we slogged up the Nisqually to the Wilson Glacier. There were a few crevasses to avoid, but nothing really gaping. There were lots of old ski tracks to follow.
The scenery was amazing of course. The Nisqually has some pretty large icefalls and crevasses (which we avoided). Fuhrer Finger still looked doable. The Fuhrer Thumb and Wapowety Headwall looked like death traps though, with lots of loose rock. Periodically we would hear rocks coming down, sounding like gunfire or explosions.
Around 9200' we came to the base of "Bivy Rock" and by about 9400' we figured we were on the Turtle snowfield, and finally unroped. We continued climbing up to 10300' or so, and found a dry spot on the western edge of the Turtle where we pitched the tent.
The views from camp were tremendous - the Tatoosh range in the foreground, then Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood in the distance, and another volcano in the background (Bachelor ?) Pretty amazing sight to see them all like that. The waxing gibbous moon rose early, followed by the mountain casting its huge shadow and alpenglow falling over the enormity of the Kautz icefall more than a thousand feet above us.
Saturday we got a 4am start and climbed the Turtle to about 11000'. Light was coming into the sky around 5 and we found ropes slung around boulders to descend to the start of the Kautz. The normal route takes you up to Camp Hazard, which is exposed to debris from the Kautz ice cliff - from there you are supposed to descend down a gully, all the while being exposed to possible ice and rock fall. The shortcut from 11000' is about a 20' drop down (rappel) and then a traverse across the gully below the ice cliff, which means less exposure to debris.
Here we caught up with Brian's group and another party. We stopped for a snack and some water while Brian & company continued on, while the other party followed after us.
The lower pitch of the route was still just hard snow - easy to climb. We pretty much soloed up this part. The second pitch was exposed glacier ice, nice and solid for screws, but it took picks & points well. There was perhaps 40m of ice at around 40-50 degrees (?) Lots of options for fun here - many good features to rest on and multiple variations. I led this pitch with about 3-4 screws (22cm) and basically went straight up the most obvious line.
Once we got above the second pitch to about 12000', we roped up again for glacier travel and resumed the slogging :) We were surrounded by fantastic scenery - icefalls, huge crevasses, etc. Most of the route had a solid boot track and had been well wanded. We continued on up to the top of the Wapowety Cleaver at 13300', and then on to the summit crater, where we unroped and left some of our gear. We'd crossed some deep crevasses, but none of the bridges had been particularly wide, and the wands & boot track had been pretty good.
Brian's group came shuffling down from the summit at some point, and we exchanged greetings. They gave us some beta and continued their descent.
Feeling the altitude and breathing heavily, we were atop the summit by around 10:45am. After some dark chocolate and summit hero pics we decided to go back down. Near the crater we talked to a couple who had just come up via the Tahoma glacier (that route starts at around 2800' !)
The descent was the crux - back at the ice pitch we found an anchor in the snow just above, which was probably buried pickets or some other deadman anchor. This turned out to be about 75m from the base, and we only had a single 50m rope, so we rapped three times, using some Ti leaver screws (probably not very secure) and an ice pinnacle (bomber) as anchors. Probably I could have made a couple of v-threads, but I was a bit worried about that with all the water running down the ice in the afternoon (probably a toss-up with the leaver screws though).
Descending the rest of the Kautz was fairly easy - by then the snow was soft. We got back up the rock step at 11000' and talked to a large group camped right there - they'd camped the night before around 9200', I guess taking the easy way up :)
We returned to camp around 4:30pm. Probably we could have descended back to the car that evening, but we decided to relax and stay an extra night, since our return flights were scheduled for Monday and anyhow the weather was supposed to be good. We were again treated to a fantastic evening.
Sunday started out a bit cloudier and windier. We started descending around 7am and the weather slowly cleared up. We were back to the cars by 10am after passing multiple RMI cattle drives (large guided groups) and by then the weather had become sunny and hot. We headed off to use the showers in the Jackson visitor center and then down to Ashford to find some decent food :)
Some pics are on my website here : http://www.rhysw.com/rainier200607