Ascent of Mount Rainier on 2013-07-21

Climber: BMS 914

Others in Party:Collin Kamholz
Rich Stephens
Date:Sunday, July 21, 2013
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Rainier
    Elevation:14411 ft / 4392 m

Ascent Trip Report

Rich and I made the epic drive from Las Vegas through eastern Nevada, Idaho, and Oregon up to the Paradise Lodge at Mount Rainier, meeting Collin, who flew in to Seattle, and drove over in his rental car.

Collin spent the night in his car and was second in line for permits, and was able to secure three of the last four spots on the Muir Snowfield. Our main choice, Camp Muir proper, was already sold out. In retrospect, the snowfield camp was a better choice, without the crowded feel of the camp above and lacking the smell of the pit toilets there.

We met Collin up by the Paradise Visitor Center. We were unable to get cell service near the lodge, so meeting Collin was a little more of a problem than anticipated, as we were behind our scheduled meeting time due to construction traffic we ran into. Picking our friend out of the hundreds of people milling around was no easy task. We began sorting through our gear and loading our large packs up for the trip to our campsite. Once done, we headed down to the overnight parking area, some 100' vertical below the main parking lot.

From the lower lot, we saddled up and began the long and tiresome trudge up the steep, paved path heading for the Muir Snowfield. It was warm, there was no breeze, and not a cloud was visible in the sky. The mountain, especially the monstrous Nisqually Icefall, loomed above us. This was going to be an exciting outing! In the meantime, my heavy synthetic leather mountaineering boots were a poor match for the trail, and my feet soon started blistering, as did Collin's. If I do this again, I am going to save a pair of beat-to-death hiking boots from the trash just to wear to the base of the snowfield, and hide them in a trash bag a few meters off the trail. If they disappear, I am no worse off! We encountered other climbers coming off the mountain. All but one group had not made the summit. It seems the standard route had been rerouted by the guide services, due to a very shaky snowbridge they felt was going to fail any moment. The new route had another snowbridge, and this one failed unexpectedly and spectacularly with two members of a four man team falling into the crevasse, one of which suffered head injuries in the process. They told us it would be "five days" until a new route could be established, hence their departures. The one two man team that summited took the shaky snowbridge, but told us that even if it was gone a route could be found if we were willing to look, so we pressed on. Not long after, I ran into fellow LVMC member Derek, who summited Mount Williamson in CA with Collin and I last year. He lives in Texas, and just happened to be up trekking on the mountain, but had no summit aspirations. I invited him to join our party, but he had other plans with his parents and had to reluctantly decline. At length, the pavement gave way to a maintained trail, crossed a stream, and lead to the base of the snowfield.

Mount Rainier is deceiving in that everything appears to be much, much closer than it really is. We began heading up, up, up the snow, in boots but without crampons attached. My feet were feeling better now thanks to moleskin and double socks, and the snow was a better match for my mountaineering boots. We made camp at the top of the snowfield, at around 9750'. Later, a ranger came by and informed the guys next to us (we were gone at the time) that technically they (and we) were camped at the bottom of the Camp Muir Zone, which is at about 10150' but apparently extends down to 9600'. Thankfully, he was OK with us staying where we were and got it taken care of with the administrative people below.

We began setting up our two tents, just as a guided group arrived and began setting up just to the east of us. We got everything set up and finished our rehydrated dinners just as the sun was beginning to go down, and as it started getting cold, we all went to sleep.

Our plan was to spend the next day at elevation, practicing roped travel as a team, and practicing crevasse rescue. Our actual summit wouldn't begin until early the next morning. We walked up to Camp Muir proper, took it all in, and did some roped travel practice on the Cowlitz Glacier below the camp. When we arrived back at our camp, we heard about the ranger visit, and practiced our crevasse rescue techniques.

The temperature on the snowfield was not all that hot, maybe 80 degrees, but the sun was an absolute scorcher, reflecting off the snow. I spent some time baking in the tent just to get out of the intense sunlight. Overall, it was a very long and somewhat miserable day frying in the UV, and in spite of my efforts to protect myself I still ended up with a slight burn. Yes, it was better than the sudden storms that Rainier is known for, but that doesn't mean it was any fun sitting around in it all day. Rich and Collin melted lots of snow for water.

We went to bed before sunset, and woke at midnight for our summit bid at 1:00AM. The other groups encamped nearby had already left by the time we woke up, yet none would summit that day. Most of the guided group bailed the night before after the head guide gave a speech stressing the dire set of dangers involved with the climb! Man, that is the EASY way to make $1500 per head - scare off all the customers knowing they prepaid...

We headed up to Camp Muir proper in headlamps, harnesses, and crampons, but not yet roped in. We roped up there, and the ascent had begun. The wanded path on the upper Cowlitz Glacier traversed below the looming Cathedral Rocks, crossing a single wide crevasse with an aluminum ladder draped across (and anchored down). In time, we reached the base of the rocks, and began switchbacking our way up the rock and cinder path, then descending slightly down on to the Ingraham Glacier. Hopping over a couple more minor crevasses, we eventually made it to the base of the Disappointment Cleaver, from which the route gets its name.

A cleaver is a band of rock that separates two glaciers, in this case, the Ingraham and Emmons. I had heard the climb on the cleaver described as anything from Class 3 to low Class 5. In reality, if you can just follow the wands in the darkness, it is really Class 2 scrambling, with use of a hand here and there. We got a little off route, hit what might be light Class 3 climbing for a move or two, then got back on route. This is good because climbing on the cleaver is not what most would consider fun due to the loose, rotten nature of the volcanic rock here. As it was, we left our crampons on the whole time. If I had it to do again I would take them off here however.

We made it to the "top" of the cleaver just as the sun began to rise. In reality it was the top of the route on the rock that we were using, but the cleaver itself extended a few hundred feet higher, though I didn't notice this during the ascent. We passed the remnants of the guided group we were camped near just as we reached the top, and they were descending; having clearly not made the summit. We paused here, took a break, and took some photos of the sunrise. Just before we began roping up for the next part of the ascent, Ray and his two friends (Sun, and the guy that smoked!) came by. They were the other group we were camped near. It seems the guides had found a new route, but it involved climbing a small 20 - 25 foot ice wall below a big crevasse. This was causing a big bottleneck, and after waiting for 1.5 hours to go up they had given up. It was cold up there in the darkness not moving, and Sun had never been above 8000' and was showing some symptoms of AMS. He wished us luck and went down.

We headed up the switchbacking path. We eventually reached the bottleneck, and waited about 35 minutes. Our team stepped over the crevasse at the base of the wall, then ascended the small wall in just a few moments, using my axe in overhand technique and mantling off ice knobs with the other hand. At the top was an arrowhead shaped area where two big crevasses converged. We hopped over the gap and kept going up.

A guided team above us elected to take a break on a very steep, very exposed section above us as we approached. One member dropped a Nalgene water bottle which I attempted to arrest as it skipped on down toward me on the ice, but it jumped my arm at the last instant and disappeared into a crevasse somewhere below. Rich was pissed they would stop there.

Rich spoke to a group coming down that told him of a more direct variation the guides had just put up that saved about half an hour - we took that. Collin began feeling the elevation during the last 1000' or so, but soldiered on without any complaint. It was not much longer and we reached the East Crater just below the summit at Columbia Crest. From here it would be a trivial walkup. We stopped for a while and relaxed, and waited for a group to leave the summit. The crater was a very pleasant place on this day, warm and calm and nearly flat. We eventually crossed it, hiked up the cinders on the rim via the use trail there, and up to the summit. Rich and I took turns taking pictures of each other. Collin came up a few minutes later, not looking very well and clearly feeling the altitude some. But by then it didn't matter, as we had all made the summit! We traversed over to the west rim of the crater as it looked higher, but when we got there it clearly was not.

The descent was by the same route we took up, but with the whole route in full daylight and warm sun it felt a lot different. The upper portion of the mountain was similar, but as we neared the bottleneck area our luck ran out. A group below us was practically camped on the narrow section of ice between the crevasses, seemingly watching the interminable process of the people that preceded them to downclimb the ice wall just below. In fairness, the wall (which was 20-25 feet high with a narrow crevasse at its base, and would have been easy Class 3 if it were made of rock), was now melting a little in the sun and was more slippery than it had been in the early morning just after sunrise when we went up it. Nevertheless, it took the 10-12 people in front of our group well over an 1:45 to downclimb the section, which was frustrating and made me seriously question their qualifications to be climbing on this mountain.

Just after our group arrived, another group came up. They were with the Everett, WA Mountain Rescue, and had a sick (moderate AMS) climber with them. I offered their leader the Dexamethasone injection I carry for emergencies, which he accepted, just in case things got bad. After waiting about an hour behind us, he finally took the sick climber down asking permission to pass everyone waiting in front of him, which everyone of course agreed to. Just the two of them went ahead, with the rest of his group waiting to go down. I later saw him at the Paradise Lodge and he returned my Dex, which he thankfully hadn't needed.

Eventually, our three man team got our chance to go down the ice wall. Rich scrambled down using his ice axe and crampon front points, still roped in but not otherwise on (an anchored) belay. Collin asked if I could belay him, so we quickly redid the rope and I used his ATC to top rope him off an existing picket and carabiner, and a second anchor I made using my axe, a biner, and a 48" runner. He easily downclimbed the wall without needing the belay. As I prepared to downclimb the face unroped, it occurred to me that I could just rappel down, since I now had an ATC clipped into my harness and two sections of rope trailing down the wall. As I prepared to remove my ice axe anchor, the guy waiting just above me offered to carry it down for me if I wanted to leave it in for the rappel. I accepted his gracious offer and made the easy rappel down, my first ever in crampons, without any drama. With everything, our three man group took about 6 minutes to deal with this section, which I felt was reasonable.

Below this spot things went quickly, as many groups were already spaced well apart due to the bottleneck. We began switchbacking our way down the middle mountain, eventually arriving at a relatively flat spot above the Disappointment Cleaver. We all took off our crampons, preparing for the rock. But we still had several hundred vertical feet to descend to get to the rock, which I didn't realize at the time, as mentioned earlier, but only noticed at this point. The ice had become slushy and very slippery. The slope was not terribly steep here and there was no exposure as the beaten track on the ice was so deep it was almost like a trough or (narrow) bobsled course. After falling on my backside three times and sliding I was wishing I still had my crampons on. At one point, we were descending the ice just to the south of the upper reaches of the Disappointment Cleaver, and I elected to traverse over to the rock for some solid footing. At first, this worked fine, and I even found some old wands indicating a route that was once used here. But the path soon became a rock climb, most of it on looser and looser rock. Committed, I realized my mistake too late, and was in very real danger of taking a 20 foot fall when any of my hand or foot holds came loose, which most of them seemed to do. It got to the point of me having to rely on some of the wobbly holds thinking, "well, this isn't too loose..." My luck nearly held to the bottom, but at last a handhold came out at the wrong time and I fell a short distance into a loose area of scree, injuring my thumb slightly and getting some blood on my clothes and wounding my pride. This section, moderately exposed Class 3, is not included in the grade I list since it was not really part of the route.

I rejoined Collin and Rich who probably thought I was a knucklehead for trying the downclimb, and we made it down the rest of the Cleaver by the route we came up. We did catch and have to wait for the group that had been in front of us, but they made decent time on the rock and didn't hinder us on the Ingraham Glacier below.

We paused after cresting the gap out on to the beginning of the Ingraham Glacier, and this group got a minute or two ahead of us. This proved fortunate, as not long afterward a tremendous clamor of falling rock broke out amid urgent warnings from the group in front. The big rock fall, with huge (some were washing machine sized) blocks came tumbling off the rocks and between our two groups. It was clearly too warm to be out on the glacier and time for us to get back to Camp Muir ASAP!

From there we descended with a sense of urgency, catching the group ahead before crossing Cathedral Gap and onto the Cowlitz Glacier. There was evidence of more rockfall here but we made it back without further incident.

After a brief rest and bathroom break at Camp Muir, we returned to our camp near the top of the snowfield, broke things down, got our heavy packs loaded, and began the long and tiresome tromp back down to the vehicles.

Rich and Collin moved much better on this stuff here, as the combo of my very top-heavy pack and history of back problems convinced me to move more cautiously than my partners. Rich used his snow shovel as a cane for balance, and Collin had trekking poles; both solutions which I lacked. Our packs were too loaded and hung with gear to try any glissade, and the snow was too soft for it to be very effective anyway. Collin waited for me a couple of times, though I had told both friends to take off without me if they wanted. All told, I made it back to the vehicle at the lower parking lot in under 2.5 hours, including a few brief stops to talk with people who I met on the way down. Our day, which had started at midnight with the climbing beginning at 1:00am, was finally over at 9:00pm. I really enjoyed this mountain, particularly the section above Camp Muir. We went and got dinner, the only thing being open at that hour being a pub. We elected to have a round of Rainier Beers in commemoration of our ascent. Amazingly, that stuff tastes every bit as shitty as it did when I last had it in 1986, even after a 20+ hour day of climbing. An hour later we were crashed in a motel somewhere.

Lessons learned were: not to add any optional climbing on the poor quality rock, to bring trekking poles to go with the heavy pack, to have something to use for shade on the snowfield if the weather is great like we had (a soft shell hung from trekking poles would help here too), and to bring that old pair of hiking boots and a garbage bag to cache them in for the trail sections below the snowfield. Oh yeah, and bring your own toilet paper to Camp Muir because they don't have any in the port-o-let. Awesome trip!
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:9494 ft / 2892 m
    Total Elevation Loss:9494 ft / 2893 m
    Round-Trip Distance:17.3 mi / 27.8 km
    Grade/Class:AI2,Cl2,Grade II
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Stream Ford, Scramble, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb, Ice Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Headlamp, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:2 nights away from roads
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Clear
Clear and very sunny
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:9245 ft / 2817 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 9076 ft / 2766 m; Extra: 169 ft / 51m
    Loss on way in:169 ft / 51 m
    Distance:8.6 mi / 13.8 km
    Route:Disappointment Cleaver w/variation
    Start Trailhead:Paradise lower parking/Muir Snowfield  5335 ft / 1626 m
    Time:1 Days 18 Hours 51 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:9325 ft / 2842 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 9076 ft / 2766 m; Extra: 249 ft / 75m
    Gain on way out:249 ft / 75 m
    Distance:8.7 mi / 14 km
    Route:Disappointment Cleaver w/variation
    End Trailhead:Paradise lower parking/Muir Snowfield  5335 ft / 1626 m
    Time:11 Hours 57 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by BMS 914
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