Ascent of Mount Rainier on 2013-08-14

Climber: William Musser

Others in Party:David Musser <3607>; RMI Guides Brent Okita
Ben Liken
and Steve Gately with Geoff
and Meghan to begin. Final ascent team Brent
David Musser and David Shaw.
Date:Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Rainier
    Elevation:14411 ft / 4392 m

Ascent Trip Report

Finally, I got around to conquering the hardest of the continental US state HPs climbs. I have created my TR documented in chronological sections including training days, approach routes, and rest stops:

1) Equipment Day – David and I booked our 4 day trip through RMI and why not? This is the service where all the great climbers started or ended up. Sure enough, Dave Hahn came by on the equipment day and chatted with our guide and team and even better he stopped by our table on the last day to say hello and taunt our lead guide Brent Okita. He said, “You went with this guy and he actually made it this time?!?” Ha! Figured why not be safe and go with the best. Hahn set a record for the most successful ascents of Mount Everest for a non-sherpa in 2012 with 15. We have been buying our equipment for years and I was in interested to see what would pass inspection and what would not. I was very happy as our 3 season LaSportiva boots, ice axes, crampons, soft and hard shells etc. passed inspection for a high alpine ascent for the first time. We needed to rent good gaiters, an avalanche transponder, a parka, and hard-shell pants.

2) We learned our guides would be Brent Okita who has over 500 summits of Rainier, over 20 of Denali and a member of the RMI Everest Club; Ben Liken (over 50 summits of Rainier) and Steve Gately (over 40 Rainier summits). We were paired with seven others for a team of nine (9). We also learned we were going to be paired with a 5 day ascent team. The other team had the advantage of some extra training on one of the lower glaciers and some extra acclimation. They were a group of 9 also and guided by 3 guides – their lead guide was Solveig Waterfall (who has hundreds of ascents in the WA and CA cascades). We would not meet them until we reached Camp Muir as they were already a day ahead of us. David and I were fortunate, in that they paired us up with the most seasoned of the 6 guides (Brent) during the entire trip.

3) Training Day – Our team of nine (9) and two of the three (3) guides had us hike up the snow bowl along the east side of Panorama Point. The bowl of snow was perfect for training as it had variable pitched terrain from 10 degrees up to vertical 90 degrees along a cornice wall. Our team consisted of an interesting assortment of people, ability and ages. 2 Women that were avid hikers but no alpine experience that lived in the Seattle area (Meghan and Tiffany); 4 men that were an assortment of firemen-paramedics and a US Dept. of Homeland Security Agent (Dan, Geoff, John, and Dave); and a State Representative from WA – Charles, who was attempting the summit for his second time after training on Mount Adams. We climbed below Panorama Point all day working on self-arrest techniques and then climbed the snow wall.

4) The Approach (Begins at 5,400 ft.) – this long stretch of paved and non-paved was through well maintained trails in the national park service lands in lower alpine meadows. In August, this area was covered in wildflower in full bloom and the trails area heavily monitored by rangers to keep people enjoying the fragile environment without going off trail. The area is swarmed with tourists like ants. Only a few snow packs and small snow fields up near the upper trails and observation areas and then we crossed Pebble Creek and the Muir Snow Field was now ahead. (2.5 miles; 2,000 feet of vertical).

5) Muir Snow Field (Begins around 7,400 ft.) – this was a long stretch of just snow. This permanent snow field is heavily traveled with an equal mixture of day hikers that want to see Camp Muir and alpine mountaineers on their way up Rainier. The snow field is slush of ripples and in the mid-day gets very mushy. At the top is the highest any day hiker can go in the park. There is a permanent base camp there with several rangers on 8 day missions sleeping and monitoring activities. It is the last place you can go without a permit, crampons and ice axes. On the other side of the ridge is the first true glacier full of our first look at crevasses– Cowlitz Glacier. We started the day around 10AM and got to the camp with plenty of time to adjust gear, receive additional instructions and eat. Here is where we met the 5 day team. The two lead guides stayed the night in the A frame hut but the other 18 customer-climbers and 4 guides were crammed into the plywood hut which is created as a 3 tier bunks. Here we got to know our team better. (2 miles; 2,788 feet of vertical) and (4.5 total miles; 4,788 total feet of vertical).

6) Cowlitz Glacier and Cathedral Gap (Begins at Camp Muir at 10,188 ft.) – This is the first stretch of upper alpine mountaineering. We were awaken by our lead guides at 11:30 PM in the middle of the night and packed to go. We were given the news that the predicted perfect weather was no longer perfect and to add a layer as it would be windier than the 20 to 30 mph winds originally predicted. Leaving from Camp Muir after a quick breakfast at 12:30 AM, we roped up. The two teams were broken into six 4 man rope teams. David and I were fortunate to be on the lead rope with Brent as our guide. They broke up the friends to make 3 clients to a rope so we ended up with John on our rope. We descended into the upper bowl of the Cowlitz Glacier. From the Ranger patron Cabin you see the nearby Bergschrund and the first glacial crevasse. Between these two features the glacier has a stable section but then many crevasses bunched just below the camp. This stable section has some tents and is the beginning of the trail. Cadaver Gap at this time of year has no snow and is dangerous so the trail heads to the right and ascends and eroded section of Cathedral Rocks. The trail climbs through Cathedral Gap and then climbs along the narrow Cathedral Rock formation above Cadaver Gap. The climb on top of Cathedral Rocks was challenging as the winds were steady 20 to 40 mph with swirling gusts striking the teams at 40 to 50 mph from different sides causing the rope team to stumble and fall. Then we ventured out onto the second glacier – Ingraham Glacier. The first break is taken at this strategic place near the campsites of Ingraham Flats where other climbers have tents set up. It was here where 5 of our 9 man team decided to tap out. The four firemen/EMT/US DEA Guide and one of the ladies. Thus, we lost John from our rope team. The other 9 man team had one drop off as they were a bit more experienced than our team and had been out acclimating an additional day. As 2 guides took down the 6 climbers back to Camp Muir, we picked up a new rope-mate David from the other team to balance the ropes again. (1 miles; 900 feet of vertical) and (5.5 total miles; 5,600 total feet of vertical).

7) Ingraham Glacier and Disappointment Cleaver (Begins around 11,000 ft.) – The trek across Ingraham Glacier begins picking a path between the crevasses. The first step over crevasse occurred on the approach to the gnarly icefalls above. This is the notorious section of the climb that killed ten climbers and one RMI guide back in the 1981 (sparring own Whitaker). The first crevasse crossing requiring a set horizontal ladder occurs on this stretch before the beginning the cleaver. This long and stretch climbs out of glaciers as crevasses crunch around the cleaver and the safest path is along the rock. It is a long winding switchback climb through the loose volcanic rock but much vertical gain is obtained here. Some more members of the team were getting beat up by the winds during the night ascent. The next break was taken at a safe refuge near the rock and beginning of the Emmons Glacier. On our team, the last woman and the state representative tapped out and joined another from the other team and the third guide was sent back to Camp Muir with 3 more. Now our team was down from 9 to just me and David. The other team still had 7 and we had John still on our rope. The reasons for the people telling the guides they were quitting were: underestimating how hard it was; and fear of falling around the crevasses and rock because of the wind. The remaining 3 guides warned that the winds would be no better as we climbed higher. 9 out of 18 continued. (1.5 miles; 1,200 feet of vertical) and (7 total miles; 6,800 total feet of vertical).

8) Emmons Glacier (Begins around 12,200 ft.) – This is the largest glacier on Rainier. This third stretch had no more rock but had the more interesting crevasse and headwall challenges. It was still dark and the winds did not let up. The trail headed east meandering up and down to find the best route around other icefalls and eventually to the only vertical ladder fixed in the wall. There were 3 anchors used for protection and this was the only place in the entire summit climb that required the use of the high dagger position to climb up to and around the ladder. Right around the corner the longest fixed horizontal ladder is placed crossing the widest crevasse of the trip. Two boards were fixed to the ladder and a guide rope although no one used the guide rope. The final crevasse crossing was a narrow (perhaps 4 foot) crossing with a single fixed 8 inch board. An easy 2 steps and over. At this point, all the terrain avoidance was over and the rest of the climb was a series of switch backs up the Emmons Glacier. The third rest break was taken somewhere after some steep ascent of this stretch was taken but this is the only break on the side of steep slope. Nobody tapped out here. I was having trouble getting my 200 to 300 calories in as the stops were so fast and I was not efficient like the guides. Realizing I had taken in water but no calories and it was time to go, I tried to choke down some crackers after my water was put away but dehydrated with a dry mouth in the wind, the partially chewed food mass simply gagged me and I nearly threw up and had to spit out the only calories I had tried to get into my mouth or choke. (1 mile; 1,100 feet of vertical) and (8 total miles; 7,900 total feet of vertical).

9) Emmons Glacier to the Caldera (Begins around 13,300 ft.) – This was our final stretch to the summit - a series of switch backs in the snow. I believe this stretch was free and clear of crevasses but it was still dark so we were not sure. The danger now seemed reduced to slope and weather issues but the trail was well worn in and marked. This section is tedious. The sun started to come up and as it did the winds grabbed small ice and snow blasted our faces and those with contacts wished they had better eye protection ware. At times, I could only faintly see the person in front of me. Cresting the top we got some relief from the wind and could see a little and the broken rock was warmed by thermal heat of the volcano and the jagged edge of the rim. To further protect from wind, the remaining teams descend into the crater. Many people call this their summit goal and go back. The true state highpoint for those that care is on the other side of the caldera up on the highest rock. After a brief break, Brent announced if anyone has additional energy, the true highpoint is a 45 minute round trip across the caldera and up the western wall – it appeared another 150 feet higher. Nobody moved. I was ready to call it quits and was still struggling to get any food down so I was starved for calories. David and I did not budge. Then suddenly, a young climber said I have more energy and then the other David on our rope said "I am a state highpointer and this spot does not count" - he wanted to do the true state HP. My son David looked at me like don’t even think about standing up; for he knew that was the right thing to say to motivate me and I stood up too. I looked over and my son had accepted his destiny and was not about to have me go without him and stood up. Brent asked me if that I was really up to it, but seeing the other 3 (including my son) heading with one of the other guides; I joined in line and followed still wishing I had time for taking in more calories for the 9,000 foot descent coming up. We found the register and climbed to the true summit. Only 4 of the original 18 made the true summit that days as the other 5 that made the caldera elected to stay back and hydrate, eat, and rest. I wanted to do that too. But the state HP was my goal. I was so tired I was not able to will myself to take my camera or company ball cap out of my backpack to the summit for a summit victory photo. My signature on the register was pitiful. We got a brief view and then suddenly the winds whipped up more of the lenticular cloud and the white out was the worse yet. We had to follow tightly behind Brent back across the caldera and we missed the other teammates and backpacks the first time. I could hear the guides discussing the path over their radios. You could only see about 10 to 20 feet ahead of you so we stuck very close to one another. (1 miles; 1,100 feet of vertical) and (9 total miles; 9,000 plus total feet of vertical).

10) On the way down we did not have views because of the wind and low clouds until around 12,000 feet. Finally, we got to see in the daylight as we got below the thick cloud-whiteout what we had missed and we took fabulous photos but only from the first and second break routes. All routes above that were socked in with only about 20 to 50 feet of visibility most of the descent. My son David had impressed Brent with his calm and efficient use of the anchors and was rewarded with running lead through the anchors at the ladders while Brent stayed in the rear where he could help arrest anyone falling more easily. I was having a bit of trouble with my fatigue and overthinking the motions. We got back to Muir and were congratulated by our 9 other teammates and guides, regrouped and headed down. We finally got to see all the faces of those that turned back and were bummed to see that Charles had not made it again. It meant so much to him and he had trained hard and lost a lot of weight for the trip. He unfortunately, elected to quit at the exact spot he had two years prior. Apparently, still not dealing well with acclimation issues. We were supposed to be down by 5PM but actually made great time and the 18 of us were down by 2:30 PM. My feet have never been sorer as the total mileage was now 18 miles and around 14 of that was since the middle of the night. RMI did a great job of managing the ropes, clients, and shuttling of people between guides and ropes. Brent was an excellent guide. I highly recommend him, but we were impressed with all of the guides we met and in particular, Ben and Solveig also.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:9411 ft / 2867 m
    Total Elevation Loss:9411 ft / 2867 m
    Round-Trip Distance:18 mi / 29 km
    Grade/Class:Hike class 1,2, mino
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Stream Ford, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb, Aid Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Ski Poles, Guide, Hut Camp
    Weather:Cold, Very Windy, White-out
variable; most very windy and lenticular cloud
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:9211 ft / 2807 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 9011 ft / 2747 m; Extra: 200 ft / 60m
    Loss on way in:200 ft / 60 m
    Distance:9 mi / 14.5 km
    Route:Camp Muir to Dissapoinment Cleaver
    Start Trailhead:Paradise Visitor Center  5400 ft / 1645 m
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:9211 ft / 2807 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 9011 ft / 2747 m; Extra: 200 ft / 60m
    Gain on way out:200 ft / 60 m
    Distance:9 mi / 14.5 km
    Route:reverse (same)
    End Trailhead:Paradise Visitor Center  5400 ft / 1645 m

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