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:  http://www.kurtwedbergphotography.com/Cascades/Mt-Rainier-May-29-30-2011/17314981_6q6v6b

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.

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