Trip: Mt. Rainier - Late August Emmons Incognito
D and I grabbed the Aug 18th weather window and headed out for the Emmons, unaware of the buzz of activity at Camp Schurman that day. Having only descended this route previously, I thought it a good choice for his 1st and my 10th ascent. We left White River Tuesday morning, playing tag with a team of French speaking climbers up the trail to the Inter Glacier, which now is a bowling alley of softball sized debris raining down from the cliffs. The snow chute (climber’s right) is melted out, and the safest route up the lower 3rd of the glacier (this day) looks to stay right, up dirty ice, then traverses left across the shotgun zone where falling rocks have little momentum and you can find a snow corridor. D’s old crampons were giving him trouble, forcing several stops, and we fell behind the French team as we futzed with gear out on the ice.
After an hour and a half of glacier travel and a few minutes of hammering on D’s crampon with my old X-15, we crossed over Camp Curtis and onto the Emmons, arriving as the last team at Schurman for the evening. We had two days left to get up and out, and decided to spend the next day repairing the crampon and practicing two-man extractions. A pleasant lazy day awaited us.
Little Tahoma from Camp Curtis
Not long after dark, headlamps began flashing around camp as two guided and four independent parties began to assemble. Next to us, two occupied park service tents remained silent. Clear skies, no moon, the early morning air thick and warm. We slept until 8am.
The Route in Twilight
Wednesday morning the camp was empty, save for the few people hovering around the hut and the gentlemen in the tents near us. Friendly conversation brought us over to meet climbing ranger, Dave Gottlieb, who had just celebrated his 42nd birthday, and Mike Gauthier, who accompanied the group remaining at camp on their previous days’ ascent. Here we also met Mike Heavey, West Seattleite and Superior Court Judge, Politico James Sheehan, Maria Cantwell, our US Senator and important park advocate, Andy Miller, the Benton County prosecutor, and friends. A more open and welcoming group could not be found so high on the mountain, and I particularly enjoyed recalling days where Gator and I had previously crossed paths along with some political small talk with Jim and Mike. Though vacationing incognito with friends, Sen. Cantwell was gracious and funny, offering a salty remark about Jim’s array of campaign tee-shirts. Her friend, Nancy, looked to me like an Iron Man veteran. Pretty trim group.
Derrick, Maria, Me and Jim
After a late breakfast that group headed for home, and Judge Heavey made sure we paid for our invasion by helping them mule packs up the crumbling shit pile to the top of the prow. The trail from Steamboat Prow past Camp Curtis and Mt. Ruth avoids the Inter Glacier, and they were anxious to begin the dusty walk down to Glacier Basin. Two backcountry carpenters had been choppered in along with several barrels of cement and supplies earlier in the week, and the assembled groups bid farewell, with Gator staying on with Gottlieb and the carpenters for another day.
Nancy and Maria descend the Prow
D and I spent our day eating and hydrating, chit-chatting and watching parties high on the mountain through binoculars. The carpenters (I apologize for forgetting their names) worked all day, removing past mistakes, carefully mortaring native stone and weaving rebar into an arch over the hut. These guys care about quality and worked hard and skillfully, ferrying water from the dripping glacier in 5 gallon buckets.
Throughout the afternoon the camp gradually filled with returning summit parties. Late in the day only two small teams remained out, and the camp was entertained by Helmstadter’s ski descent done in fine style. Bravo. He continued on down the Emmons toward Camp Curtis without a break, and we awaited the final groups containing a pair of Polish natives and a local father-son team as they worked cautiously down in the softening snow.
Since we were hiking out the following day, D and I decided to rise early and hit the sack about 7pm. Shortly thereafter I wandered over to the hut and spent a few hours with Dave and Gator, enjoying some popcorn and conversation, reminiscing about Alaskan adventures 25 years and 30 lbs ago. Gottlieb is a hoot, and I must say that he has it about right—approaching his job first as a climber/guide, rather than a bureaucrat. The Gauthier/Gottlieb ethic seems to me the perfect fit for Rainier, and spending a little time with these guys was one of the highlights of our trip.
D and I rose at 11:30 and promptly received the spotlight treatment from hut. By 12:30am we were off, trudging up the ramp past Emmons Flats, to a short icy step and onto the corridor, where soft, slushy snow kept the pace a little slow. At about 11,000’ the winds began to pick up, which was thematic for the day as we fought gusty high winds in clear weather all the way to the summit. The route is a boulevard right now, and passes by some remarkable crevasses. But it’s still in great shape with very little true exposure. After rounding a corner at about 13,000’ the long traverse to the north saddle comes into view. Gottlieb had earlier put up a more direct line near hear, which climbs straight up WSW before traversing N under an ice fall. We debated, but ultimately chose to battle the high winds on the more established trail and continued on to the saddle. We reached the crater rim after 8 blustery hours, the wind at hurricane force, ropes flying, unable to even set up a tripod. A group of four was marching back to the DC across the crater, and we moved down to Register Rock to find a wind break. No such luck, and D signed us in as “Team Gimp.” After about an hour of watching the dirt fly, we packed up and headed back down. D’s knee was acting up, so we moved slowly, enjoying a spirited and beautiful descent. Crampons borrowed from the ranger hut alleviated any equipment concerns, and we stopped frequently to take in the views and linger on the mountain. No others were on route that day.
The Saddle Traverse
Derrick on the descent
Dave met us as we returned to camp, but refused to part with any of his hidden stash of beer. After being full that morning, the camp was eerily empty of tents except ours, and we lounged around for a few hours before packing up. Ascending the prow, we engaged in our most ridiculous moment of the entire trip, as D jumped up the trail only to get off route, warn me not to follow, then proceed to litter the route up with rockfall. Confused and tired, I poked around a bit but could not confirm the obvious route we had danced up the previous day, so I returned to the hut, tail between my legs, and asked for beta. Gottlieb happily complied, and needlessly walked me up the entire route as I huffed under my heavy pack with tired legs. D waited on top, feeling stupid himself for getting onto some sketchy crumbling face. We thanked Dave again and made off down the ridge for Glacier Basin. The hike out was lovely in the waning light, and we watched clouds move into the valleys to the north as we scrambled over the ridge. We met a party coming up to Camp Curtis who warned us of route finding problems in the scree fields beyond Ruth and being unable to find a stream crossing, but we found no such difficulties, finally getting back to the car after dark, tired, happy, and ready to crack one open.
Pickets (2), Screws (2), 3rd tool
The lower Inter Glacier is a low/mid angle dirty ice sheet with steady rock fall that is generally confined to a corridor on the right. We chose to ascend inside this fall line on the right and cross it higher up. The glacier could be approached on the far left, but rogue rocks in that area come at high speed. The trail from Glacier Basin crosses the creek and climbs steeply to the ridge to the south, then follows the trail past Camp Curtis to the top of the Prow. One 15’ class 3 scramble is negotiated along the way.