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Ascent of Mount Rainier on 2019-05-05

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Sunday, May 5, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Rainier
    Location:USA-Washington
    Elevation:14411 ft / 4392 m

Ascent Trip Report

Mount Rainier via Fuhrer Finger – Car to Car on Skis

May 5, 2019 – 12am to 4:30pm

Eric and Colie

The longest continuous ski descent in the lower 48 states is generally considered to be from the summit of Mt Rainier to the Nisqually bridge crossing nearly 10,500ft lower, and the standard route is to descend the Fuhrer Finger. I had been wanting to ski this route for a while, but the conditions have to be perfect to get the full 10,500ft descent. In the winter and early spring it is rare to have stable enough snow conditions on the route to safely ski it. Later in the spring when the snow conditions are safer and the weather starts to get drier the snow may have melted out at the Nisqually bridge, making for a shorter but still respectable descent of 9,300ft to the Paradise parking lot.

This weekend seemed like it might be the sweet spot, and Colie was interested in joining. Freezing levels were around 10,000ft, the weather was supposed to be sunny, avy conditions were safe, and the NOAA snow prediction site showed snow still down to the Nisqually bridge crossing. Most people do the route in 2 days, but I was excited to do a car to car ascent of Rainier and avoid any skiing with heavy overnight gear.

We left town Saturday morning, arriving at Paradise mid day to pick up a permit. It seems like the permit system changes every year. The current system is you have to buy a climbing pass online in advance, then show the rangers your receipt in person. Then you need to pick up a free additional permit from the ranger in person. It doesn’t matter if you are camping or not, you are still assigned a camping zone, which is subject to a quota.

The ranger said there were 17 people who were camping in the Wilson Glacier zone that night planning to climb the
finger the next morning, and he would put us in that zone (even though we were not camping). The zone had a quota of 32, so plenty of space. He said a group had skied the finger Friday and conditions were reported to be good.

For some reason I had started feeling sick that morning, and was exhausted just climbing the steps into the visitor center. That didn’t bode well for climbing Rainier that night, but I hoped a few hours of sleep might help.

We tried to take a nap in the visitor’s lot, then pulled over to the overnight lot and went to sleep around 6pm. I didn’t really get much official sleep, especially with all the sprinter vans pulling up next to us and people talking late into the night.

We woke up for real at 11:30pm and were moving shortly after midnight. I was definitely not feeling 100%, but wanted to give it a shot anyways. Unfortunately it was a new moon so navigation was a bit difficult, but we followed a gps track from Colie’s friend James who had attempted the route before, and followed skier tracks up to near Glacier Vista. From there we skied down to the Wilson Glacier and continued following boot and ski tracks up.

I was pretty sure we would follow the tracks of the other skiers heading up the finger, but eventually the tracks dead ended as the terrain got steep. I checked the map and we had ascended a bit too high. I think all the tracks were from people hiking up the Nisqually Glacier as a day trip and turning around. We started to traverse, but the terrain got too steep and sketchy for skis, so we switched to crampons.

After a brief steep section the terrain leveled out and we met up with the skin track heading up for the finger. The snow was icy and firm so we kept the crampons on. We traversed across the Wilson Glacier at 7,400ft, then gained the ridge on the west side of the glacier and headed up. I briefly thought we’d have to abort the trip after one of Colie’s crampons fell off and went missing, but she was able to find it and we proceeded up the ridge.

We soon saw at least a dozen headlamps in the finger, and were happy to see we’d have a boot track above us for the rest of the climb. By sunrise at 5:30am we reached the standard campsite at 9,200ft and saw several tents set up. Two skiers had just woken up and would soon start up the climb.

From camp we traversed over to the base of the Fuhrer Finger then started switchbacking up. The snow was still icy, and there were lots of snow chunks in the gully from loose wet slides. It wasn’t as steep as I’d feared, and as long as it softened up I figured it would be a fun ski descent.

As we climbed higher we caught up to some other climbers at the top of the gully, just as the sun was hitting some upper rock bands. A few small rocks and one large rock fell down as we exited the danger zone, though the two climbers far below us must have had to dodge the rocks.

Around 11,400ft we crossed right onto the Nisqually Glacier and roped back up. It looked very crevassed, and all the other climbers were ascending the ridge crest to the left, so we just followed them. The snow climb was very steep, much steeper than the finger, and I wondered how it would be possible to ski down that. It seemed about as steep as the steepest section I’d climbed on Lincoln Peak the previous weekend, though softer.

Eventually the steepness eased, and we passed a handful of climbers to continue up the ridge. I was still not feeling 100%, so I set a very slow but steady pace that was the fastest I could maintain. We zigzagged up the ridge, then traversed back right onto the Nisqually Glacier, and eventually topped out on Columbia Crest around 12:45pm.

It was cold and windy and not appealing to stop for too long. I saw two guys resting in the crater, and three had skied down just before we topped out. We took off the rope, strapped on the skis, and were soon beginning the descent.

The top was icy rime feathers and sastrugi, but never too icy to prevent good turns. As we got lower we followed our ascent tracks and the snow got more powdery. The ridge was luckily perfect corn all the way down to the steep section.

I was contemplating taking my skis off and booting down, but other ski tracks descended the steep face, and the snow was nice and soft, we decided to give it a try. I’m not sure if it officially counted as skiing, but we did have the skis on our feet as we mostly side stepped down with ice axes in the slope. At the bottom of the slope we had to gain a little speed to jump a crevasse, but then the angle finally decreased and we could get some turns in.

We traversed right to enter the Fuhrer Finger and the snow was getting much slushier. Luckily all the snow blocks were now soft enough to ski through. We descended the finger quickly to avoid rockfall danger, and two other guys caught up to us at the bottom – a snowboarder and a skier. They had to stop at camp to pick up their overnight gear, but luckily we could continue down without stopping.

We generally followed our ascent route down the Wilson and back to the Nisqually Glacier. We briefly considered trying to ski down to the Nisqually Bridge, but from our views at the bridge and from the mountain it looked like it was almost completely melted out and would be mostly boulder scrambling back to the road. So instead we skied back to the car at Paradise, arriving around 4:15pm for a 9,300ft descent.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
Summary Total Data
    Gear Used:
Skis
Ascent Statistics
    Route:Fuhrer Finger
Descent Statistics



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