Month: May 2011

Mt. Rainier delivers in “full conditions” – May 29-30, 2011

Mt. Rainier from the Muir Snowfield.

This is a summary of a climb of Mt. Rainier by SMI guides April Mayhew and Kurt Wedberg written by Kurt Wedberg.  The plan was hatched this past winter while guiding our January 2011 Aconcagua expedition when April came to me on the trail and suggested we make plans to climb the Liberty Ridge route on Mt. Rainier.  This is a route that has eluded me for many reasons.  Sometimes weather, other times conditions, and still other times when weather and conditions were perfect I’ve had partners back out.  We arrived in Seattle ready to pack and go on Saturday May 28.  Unfortunately fate would again get in our way of attempting Liberty Ridge.  Recent storms had left avalanche hazard on the 40+ degree slopes high.  Besides, the huge winter snowfalls meant the road to the trailhead at White River was still not open.

Our plan B was to climb Mt. Rainier by the classic Ingraham Direct route.  This is the early season route on the south side of the mountain.  During my years working with RMI I had guiding this route many times.  Conditions still looked questionable but we thought it was worth a try.  Amid a series of storms that had been hitting the area (and forecasted to continue for another week or more) all the weather models were showing a slight break between Sunday afternoon and Monday morning May 29-30.  We decided to try to hit this small weather window and sneak in the summit of Mt. Rainier.  After guiding here from 1991 – 2006 a piece of my heart will always be here on this mountain and any chance to visit it is always special, no matter what route we climb.  If I reached the summit on this trip it would be my 120th trip to the top.

We drove to the Paradise parking lot at 5400’, secured a climbing permit, and packed our rucksacks with clothing, climbing gear (rope, harnesses, helmets, harness, plus carabiners, slings, and snow pickets for crevasse rescue), tent, stove, plus enough food and fuel for one overnight stay at Camp Muir at 10,080’.  The weather was cloudy with no precipitation.  Cloud cover with the sun’s rays poking through made for a warm hike.  At 7500’ we broke out of the clouds and were treated to a stunning view of Mt. Rainier.  The heavy winter snowfall has left the mountain beautiful looking beautiful.  We would be treated to this stunning view all the way up to Camp Muir where we planned to spend the night.  We kept a casual pace enjoying the afternoon and arrived at Camp Muir in time to set up camp and take a quick hike up Muir Peak to experience the beautiful sunset this day would offer.

Before departing on this trip we checked in with some of my friends who still guide here.  Nobody had reached the summit within the past week.  Weather and avalanche conditions had turned them around.  Here on the mountain there would be two guided groups giving it a go in the morning.  Knowing they would leave at 1:30 am or so we decided to let them go ahead and break trail for us J.  After a busy winter and spring that saw us on Mexico’s Volcanoes, two Aconcagua expeditions, Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kenya, and numerous Mt. Whitney trips in March and April we felt in pretty good shape.  We knew we would make great time which afforded us the opportunity to sleep in a little longer.  We left Camp Muir at 4:30am.

Weather was clear and calm when we left.  With the absence of a moon we had a blanket of stars above us while we climbed.  We made our way across the Cowlitz Glacier and up to Cathedral Rocks as it became light enough to no longer need headlamps.  We entered the Ingraham Glacier and 50 minutes after leaving camp we took a break at Ingraham Flats at 11,000’.  On the upper mountain we could see the two guided groups making their way up the route.  Each team had several guides leading rope teams.

We put away our headlamps and got out sunglasses then continued up the Ingraham Glacier.  Weaving our way through crevasses and snow bridges we took our next break at 12,400’.  The sun was out, the skies were clear, and a steady wind kept the temperature chilly but manageable.  After applying sunscreen and having a quick snack we continued higher.  At 13,100’ we came upon a large crevasse with an overhanging lip and a fixed line to aid in surmounting it.  Above the crevasse we quickly caught up to the groups above.  A snow bridge had collapsed on a crevasse at 13,600’ and the guides were looking around for an alternative way through.  Meanwhile the clear skies had given way to a cloud cap that was now enveloping the summit.  The sun was slightly poking through above but it made visibility limited.  The guides all decided to turn their groups around.  I saw a way around the right side of the crevasse though so we decided to cross this snow bridge and continue on.  The only party above us on the route was a team of two climbing rangers.  Even with limited visibility the route from here to the summit was familiar territory.  We continued to move well in the increasingly thinner air and an hour after leaving everybody else behind we stepped out on to the summit of Mt. Rainier at 9:30am, five hours after leaving Camp Muir!

After a quick stop for food and water it was time to turn around and head down.  Moving quickly retracing our steps we got back to Camp Muir at 11:15am.  A leisurely lunch and packing our rucksacks we descended back to the Paradise parking lot after experiencing “paradise” of a different kind on the upper reaches of Mt. Rainier!  Mt. Rainier threw a lot of variable weather and conditions at us but delivered another very memorable adventure on this beautiful mountain!!

A few pictures are below.  The entire photo gallery can be viewed here:

April and Kurt at the Paradise parking lot at 5400'/1646m

Snowbanks at the Paradise are evidence of the huge winter snowfall they had this year.

April above Panaroma Point at 6700'/2042m still in a white out before we broke out above the cloud layer.

Kurt with Mt. Rainier behind at 7600'/2317m on the Muir Snowfield after breaking above the clouds

High above the cloud deck April taking the final steps into Camp Muir at 10,080'/3072m.

Inside the "cook shack" at Camp Muir. This stone hut was built in 1919 and is considered a historical landmark in Mt. Rainier National Park. It is now used as the ranger's hut. Until 2007 this hut was used by RMI for the guides and cooks. Here we prepared meals for our clients and the guides leading the climbs would sleep here.

When the "cook shack" was used by the guide service the tradition was that once a guide reaches 100 ascents of Mt. Rainier they could carve their name in the wood beams on the roof. The rangers let us come visit the cook shack and see where my name is carved.

4:15 am April putting on her crampons making final preparations for our summit bid.

5:00 am April at Cathedral Gap shortly before sunrise from the East. Behind is Little Tahoma Peak 11,138'/3395m. "Tahoma" was the Native American name for Mt. Rainier. Little Tahoma is a satellite peak of Mt. Rainier and is the 3rd highest peak in the state of Washington.

From Cathedral Gap looking at the upper mountain and our route to the summit.

A group camped at Ingraham Flats at 11,000'/3353m as we watch the sunrise.

Starting up the Ingraham Direct route at 11,300'/3444m. Behind April on the left is a climbing team from Seattle. They turned back at 13,100'/3993m.

April crossing a large crevasse at 11,400'/3475m on a thick snow bridge.

April at 11,600'/3536m. Route finding through the maze of crevasses on this section of the Ingraham Direct route is one of the cruxes of the climb.

April at 13,100'/3993m. Behind is a party descending. With a cloud cap forming over the summit all the parties turned back this day except us and two climbing rangers who were ahead of us.

April at 13,800'/4206m. There was 35'/10m of rope between us while climbing. The white out gave us only slightly more visibility than this. This was all familiar terrain for me after guiding here between 1991 - 2006. We kept moving well as Mt. Rainier gave us "full conditions" for the last hour of our ascent.

At 13,900'/4237m. In the white out as the wind blew moisture on us it hit a dew point and formed frost on our clothing and April's hair.

Arm's length self portrait on the summit of Mt. Rainier.

Mt. McKinley Wrap Up

From left to right: Gary Talcott, Matt McDonough, Tom Hargis, Dan Corn, Bill Simon, Finn Wentworth, Kurt Wedberg, and Drew Daly at the SE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier in Denali National Park.

This is a recap of a Mt. McKinley expedition that SMI founder Kurt Wedberg was a part of.  A few pictures are below.  The entire photo gallery can be found here:

On May 1 SMI guide Kurt Wedberg flew to Alaska to be a part of an expedition to Mt. McKinley’s classic West Buttress Route.  The team included Finn Wentworth, Matt McDonough, and long time friend of SMI Bill Simon.  The guide team included Tom Hargis, Gary Talcott, Dan Corn, and Drew Daly.  Logistical support was courtesy of Alaska Mountaineering School who is an authorized concessionaire in Denali National Park.

After flying in to Anchorage the team drove to the town of Talkeetna, which is the jumping off point for expeditions into the Alaska Range.  Talkeetna translated from the native language means “river of plenty” and is located where the Chulitna, Susitna, and Talkeetna rivers converge.  Having less than 1000 year round residents this town is a destination for mountaineers, salmon fisherman, rafters, and tourists taking scenic flights over the Alaska Range.  Here in Talkeetna we organized our equipment and took care of pre trip logistics including meeting with the National Park Service for the briefing they give all teams before starting their expeditions.

Main Street of Talkeetna consisting of a few souvenir shops, eateries, gas station, and a couple general stores.

20 bags laid out for 20 days worth of food.

Bill organizing personal gear to be used on the expedition.

Bill and Finn at the National Park Service briefing.

On May 4 the team took all their equipment to Talkeetna Air Taxi and loaded into two de Havilland Beaver airplanes equipped with skis for the 45 minute flight into the Alaska Range where they landed on the SE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier at 7200’/2195m.

Matt and Bill in the Beaver ready to fly.

The flight into Base Camp offers many dramatic views of the peaks in the Alaska Range. Scenic flights of this range are popular among the many tourists that visit this area.

View of the lower Kahiltna Glacier during the flight to base camp.

Bill at Base Camp with the landing strip on the SE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier on the left. Behind is Mt. Foraker. At 17,400'/5304m it is the 6th highest mountain in North America rising over 10,000'/3048m above Kahiltna Base Camp.

At Base Camp the team set up camp and organized gear and supplies for the expedition.  A cache was left here with 3 days worth of food and fuel for the return trip in case weather caused a delay in the planes picking us up.  On May 5 we loaded up rucksacks and sleds with 20 days worth of food and fuel plus personal gear and clothing.  We descended the SE Fork to 6800’/2073m then turned north up the Kahiltna Glacier.  This glacier is 33 miles/53km long and over 1 mile/1.6km wide in places.  On either side of the glacier rise peaks that reach several thousand feet above.  Climbers are dwarfed to little black dots in an immense landscape which gives a sense of awe and humility in this dramatic scenery.  The team traveled to 7800’/2377m where Camp 1 was established.

Mt. McKinley as seen from Base Camp.

May 5: Bill and Finn geared up and ready to start the journey from Base Camp.

Bill and Matt with sleds in tow in the middle of the massive Kahiltna Glacier.

Finn getting ready to take a rest break next to Matt (seated left) on the Kahiltna Glacier.

Gary Talcott enjoying the days walk along the Kahiltna Glacier.

Tom Hargis at a carefully chosen safe spot for a rest break on the Kahiltna Glacier.

After probing out a safe zone on the glacier platforms were leveled to set up tents at Camp 1 at 7800'/2377m.

Camp 1 at 7800'/2377m.

Over the next couple of days the team would make a load carry to cache gear at 9900’/3018m, took a rest day, moved to Camp 2 at 9900’/3018m, moved to Camp 3 at 11,000’/3353m, and retrieved our cache at Camp 2.

Matt and Kurt at Camp 2. Behind in the distance is Mt. Hunter 14,570'/4441m.

Bill and Matt checking out the scenery and the route above en route to Camp 3. Behind Matt is Tom Hargis and Finn Wentworth.

Camp 3 at 11,000'/3353m. A warm day offering a great opportunity to dry out gear.

Happy Birthday Matt!

Matt and Tom in the kitchen tent at 11,000'/3353m

Bill, Kurt, and Finn at Camp 3.

From Camp 3 the terrain begins to steepen and the views continue to get more dramatic.  The next step in the expedition is to carry gear to a cache at 13,500’/4115m and return to Camp 3 to sleep.  Then we move to Camp 4 at 14,200’/4328m.  The following day we make a short trip with empty packs to retrieve our cache.  From Camp 3 we switch from snowshoes to crampons and swap ski poles for ice axes.  The terrain getting to our cache site involves climbing Motorcycle Hill (35+ degrees), Squirrel Hill (35+ degrees), then we traverse across the Polo Fields, which leads us to the final hill below Windy Corner at 13,300’/4054m.  We were treated to the most clear days of the expedition during these next few days.  As far as the eye can see to the north we saw views of the Alaskan tundra. Decorating our view in every other direction we saw countless peaks in the Alaska Range.  Breathtaking scenery, calm winds, and clear skies made for some unforgettable days of climbing!

View of Mt. Foraker (left) and Kahiltna Dome from Camp 3.

Bill and crew climbing Squirrel Hill with the Peters Glacier and the Alaskan tundra in the background.

Gary Talcott topping out on Squirrel Hill.

Bill psyched to be topping out on Windy Corner on a clear windless day!

Traversing Windy Corner

The team filling our cache site at 13,500'/4115m.

Kurt on the descent from Windy Corner with an empty pack.

Matt and Bill descending Motorcycle Hill after our carry day.

Bill and Matt en route to Camp 4.

Finn, Bill, and Matt enjoying dinner and the scenery at Camp 4 14,200'/4328m.

Camp 4 with the Orient Express Couloir and West Rib behind.

The team stacking blocks to make walls around our camp.

The team at Camp 4 after building walls for our camp. This camp offers an excellent view of Mt. Foraker behind.

Kurt and Bill enjoying a hot drink in their tent.

Finn and Bill in the dining tent.

After being on the mountain for two weeks the team was acclimatizing well and getting ready to move to our high camp at 17,200’/5243m.  Winds began to increase and we then learned of impending weather.  High winds were forecast to reach over 70mph on the summit and predicted to last for several days.  This didn’t bode well for a safe attempt at reaching the summit.  The team discussed the situation and decided to descend rather than trying to wait it out.

This expedition was a great success on many levels.  The team stayed safe which is the first goal on all our trips.  Everybody also learned a lot about mountaineering and about themselves.  We also all returned friends and with a new perspective on the world around us.  Whether or not team members decide to return to give Mt. McKinley another attempt this was definitely a great adventure and another trip of a lifetime.  Thanks everybody for a great trip!

Thanks everybody for a great trip!

Mt. McKinley Update May 19

The entire team is safely off the mountain having all flown off of the SE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier yesterday.  The expedition reached a high point of 15,500′ before turning around.  Amid several more days of high winds in the forecast that were projected to reach 70+mph and dwindling food supplies the team decided it was best to turn back.

The expedition was a success on many levels.  Above all else the entire team stayed safe and returned without a single injury.  Everybody also learned a a lot about mountaineering and about themselves.  Everybody remained friends and the adventures shared will only strengthen those bonds.

More news will be coming soon complete with pictures of another amazing adventure.  Thank you to everybody for their thoughts and prayers during our expedition!!

May 11, 2011 – Mt. McKinley Update

We received a satellite phone call from Kurt updating us on the team’s progress on Mt. McKinley.  Here’s the “quick and dirty” from Kurt at 11,000 feet!

The team flew onto the Southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier on May 4th, arriving at 7200’ (2195m).  On May 5th, they moved up to camp at 7800’ (2375m), on May 7th they made it up to 9900’ (3018m), and on May 10th they reached 11,000’ (3353m).  The team continued to make progress despite high winds holding them up.

The team’s plan as of the 11th was to make a cache at 13,500’ (4115m) on May 12th, with hopes of reaching 14,200’ (4328m) via the West Buttress today, May 14th!

Kurt noted that the weather has been unusually cold, with a high of -35 degrees at 17,000’ the other day!  Despite the cold weather and high winds, the team is in good spirits.  Everyone on the team is doing very well and enjoying the experience.

A recovery and rescue were made on Mt. McKinley earlier this week, and while none of our team members were part of this effort, our thoughts go out to all those involved.

Kurt says that everyone at home is missed and thanks all of you for the support you send toward SMI.  We look forward to hearing from Kurt again in a few days!