This is a Trip Report from a summit day of 06/12/04. It's long and has more personal expression than a normal trip report, since I wrote it partly for my family and friends, who cannot fathom why I do these things and partly so that will not forget anything about it. I'm posting it on the Climber's Board just because of all of the attention given to this particular route this year, and some may find it useful. If it should be moved to a different board then please feel free to do so.
Liberty Ridge 2004 (a.k.a. B.A.D. Adventure 2004)
Doug, my long time climbing partner, friend, and co-founder of B.A.D. Adventures (Bruk And Doug), moved out of state abut 5 months ago. Instead of having several small trips per year, we were reduced to a one week venture. So we each took a week of vacation at the same time to devote ourselves strictly to some really choice alpine climbing. Bad weather snuffed out an attempt on the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart after suffering through a bivy of rain and snow. All of the weather patterns within a day’s driving distance were unstable, causing us to hang out in my garage, fiddling with gear and scheming. The weather forecasts started calling for a good high pressure system for the end of the week. We would have one shot at greatness for this year’s B.A.D. Adventure.
Conversation turned to Liberty Ridge, on Mt. Rainier. It was a classic alpine snow and ice route with a high level of commitment that earned it a grade V classification. I had made four previous attempts on the Ridge, three of them with Doug. All attempts were benighted by either bad weather or route conditions. On our last attempt two years ago, wile recrossing the Winthrop glacier in retreat from Liberty Ridge, we met a party of four young climbers with aims on the Ridge. I chatted with their leader while standing in the boot track on the glacier, it was a memorable conversation that I recalled with clarity after hearing that three of them died high on the mountain on that trip.
I have never retreated so many times from any other route, but I knew this route allowed little margin for error, so I wanted the deck stacked in my favor as much as possible. As it were, fate seemed to be nudging us closer and closer to another attempt on the ridge. We had spent several days (due to weather) devoted entirely to refining our climbing strategy, collecting the latest details on conditions and forecasts, and honing our gear down to a bare minimum with reasonable safety. We came up with an itinerary that would allow good acclimatization from sea level, as well as divide up the approach into easier days and would allow us to conserve energy for summit day. Everything was planned to give us every advantage on summit day, and the whole plan was falling into place beautifully, with one exception. The day after Doug flew into town with his wife, we had a little gathering of friends over at our house to visit with the couple for the first time since they moved out of state. As the guys hung out in the garage, the girls collaborated in the living room. Apparently it came up within the group of women that we were contemplating another crack at Liberty Ridge during this year’s B.A.D. Adventure. Normally this thought would be worrisome at an allowable level to our wives and friends, but this year had already seen two separate deaths on the route early in the season, and the stakes were heightened by an evolution of our lives toward a more familial orientation. The collective worry rose until one of the women came out to the garage to express their concern. Although this was an unusual gesture, we took it into consideration but felt that we were more aware of our abilities and what was needed to do the route than they were. But our evolving lifestyles had also severely curtailed our ability to stay in good climbing form, while our age, now in our late 30’s, was starting to become a factor as our bodies were becoming less cooperative than they were in our 20’s.
Two days later Katie flew back home, Pacific Northwest weather squashed our Stuart attempt, and the weather continued to falter, so we lurked in my garage, sampled various microbrews, weighed gear, poured over route descriptions, tracked the weather, and generally fell into an obsessive plan to climb Liberty Ridge. And everything fell into place quite easily.
On Wednesday, June 9th, 2004, we had a leisurely morning making the drive out from my Seattle home to the White River Ranger Station on the North Side of Mt. Rainier in it’s namesake national park. We packed and repacked everything the day before until we had decreased our pack weight to a minimum, which would continue to decrease significantly as the days passed and the climbing becamesmore technical. We were relatively pleased with the gear and plan we had chosen, we would be far more prepared for this attempt on Liberty Ridge than ever before.
The ranger looked a bit reluctant while completing our registration after learning which route we were heading to. Sitting in front of us on his desk was a neatly folded and worn American flag. Doug and I both knew from our military days that a flag folded in such a manner was a ritual with an ominous purpose, to be presented to your loved ones in your honor when you die. Another park employee came in to pick up the flag and asked if it was the item to be picked up for the family of the last person to die, just a week ago, on Liberty Ridge. We recognized his name immediately from paying close attention to the story of that climbing accident as it had evolved. The Ranger writing up our climbing permits noticed our reaction to the discovery of the name of the flags honoree, and said “speaking of Liberty Ridge….”. We seemed to be having clashes of destiny, on one hand circumstances had allowed us our best shot by far to climb this route, yet we were encountering Twilight Zone foreshadowing. The ranger indicated that so many parties end up taking longer than planned on this route that he automatically took our four-day plan and extended it to five, rewriting our planned check-out date for us.
We saddled up in the climber’s parking lot at the White River Campground. I hid my key under a rock near the parking lot so that we would both have access to it upon return, regardless of what might happen on the mountain. We started up the familiar trail as I felt a little abnormally anxious about this trip, suspecting that this time was likely to have to face up to what I knew was an intimidating route. Conditions and weather were shaping up nicely so nothing should cause us to abandon the attempt, except for something within us. We lazily hiked the three miles in to Glacier Basin for our first bivy. We found snow-free islands under trees to throw down our sleeping bags for the evening. By making the first day an easy one we were able to shave three miles off our normal first day of approach, and spend an extra night acclimatizing our sea-level bodies. Despite the snow-covered alpine forest and meadows, it was a pleasantly warm and sunny evening.
The next morning we crawled out of a twelve hour hibernation in our bivy sacks. We were so prepared that there had not really been much to do the previous evening, so we were in the sack by seven pm. In the morning the weather was cloudy, becoming a moist fog as we ascended out of the basin toward the Inter glacier and then turned West to climb over St. Elmo’s pass in a glaring, whiteout fog. Near the Inter glacier we had encountered a twelve person group heading up to Camp Schurman to climb the Emmons Glacier route. We stopped and chatted with them as we unshouldered our packs to unpack our ice tools for use on the steep snow to the pass. They asked where we were headed. “Liberty Ridge.” The reply was “Oh... Good luck”. Another one said “Oh they don’t need any luck!” I unashamedly mentioned that I would take all the luck I could get on this route.
At St. Elmo’s pass we had hoped to gaze across the Winthrop glacier and see a boot track marking a direct path to Curtis Ridge. Instead we could not see the glacier at all because of the whiteout fog, but there was a boot track. The track turned left, up the glacier, which was the first time we had seen it head in that direction instead of the more direct path slightly to the right. We followed it in confusion as I took our first roped lead in the whiteout up the glacier, away from our objective, until it finally turned around and actually traced an excellent path through the glacier, which was in surprisingly good shape for such a low snow year. Seracs were just starting to sprout from steep parts in the glacier, and there were very few crevasses that required attention. We exited onto the obnoxiously broad Curtis Ridge, and started a long traverse in deep snow and poor visibility. Doug led the traversing slog at 7,200 feet elevation that seemed to last forever. However we were following fairly fresh boot tracks. We finally ran into the cliff that stands high over the Eastern side of the Carbon Glacier, still invisible below in the whiteout. We knew the Carbon was down there though, this marked the farthest we had come in our previous attempts, which had all been aborted due to bad weather or climbing conditions. Near the cliff’s edge were various dirt benches littered with rocks. As we wandered around the area looking for good bivy sights for our second night out, two figures came out of the mist from higher up on the ridge. They were the ones whose steps we had been following, and would continue to follow for most of our ascent. The pair had been camped on Curtis Ridge since the night before, delaying the ascent to Thumb Rock due to apparent bad weather, which actually turned out to be a low-ceiling cloud layer that ended just above our present elevation. They had been scouting higher up the ridge, and admitted to taking a nap on some of the large rocks that were strangely warm from the UV rays filtering through the mist that we stood in. They graciously showed us the entrance ramp onto the glacier, located close to their tent. They were from Colorado, here for a shot at a classic route that was famed for its incredible climbing, yet lethally unforgiving at times. We located a couple of nice bivy spots and reinforced the surrounding wind walls made of stone. We took advantage of the heat stored in the rocks by draping a pack cover over a large boulder, filling it with snow and letting it create a free water source for us. One of the most important commodities on this trip would be fuel. Too much means excessive weight to be fought while trying to move expediently on summit day, too little means no way to prepare dehydrated foods, and worse, no way to melt snow for water to replenish dehydrated bodies. We had one full 33 ounce fuel bottle to last the two of us four days to cook meals and melt snow for water. We knew that fuel and shelter would be the most important items to help us get through unplanned bivvies higher up if it came to that, so we needed to conserve fuel as much as possible without compromising our need for hydration. We generally laid about trying to dry various items in the warm mist, especially our boots. Foolishly, we had been persuaded into wearing these boots, with some new ultralight crampons, for this specific route, by a salesman at a local climbing shop, and backed up by a gear review in one of the two most popular climbing magazines that actually stated that this boot would be perfect for Liberty Ridge. The combination was insanely light, shaving 1 ½ pounds from each foot, which translates into huge savings in energy expenditure on a grade V route. The inevitable downfall was that the boots are not waterproof, not even water resistant. Despite having proven themselves on a trip to the Bugaboos last year, the boots were now cold and wet from the extensive snow travel on Mt. Rainier. We had purchased neoprene socks in anticipation of this downfall, but we were having serious doubts about the future warmth of our feet as we ascended this mountain.
We crawled into the bivy sacks around 6:00 pm, hoping to drop off into an early slumber and wake up early to take advantage of the easy travel on a frozen Carbon glacier. While laying there in the evening, there were increasing windows of clearing in the mist that allowed me clear views of Liberty Ridge and the summit from my bivy sack. It was stunning and a little scary. The weather was doing exactly what was forecasted, so tomorrow should better weather, with perfect weather for summit day and even the day after. Nothing to stop us so far on this trip.
We slept in a bit, but did exercise enough discipline to get up early and get a move on before the glacier softened up. As we dropped down onto the glacier we met up with the Colorado climbers as they finished roping up at the edge of the Carbon. We joked out loud with them, knowing that we would be spending more time together later. We donned our harnesses and crampons, roped in, and set off up the Carbon with Doug in the lead. We made excellent time with little effort on the solidly frozen glacier. The tracks we were following were obviously made later on a previous day, sinking deep into the snow, while today our crampons hardly scratched the surface. The route up the Carbon Glacier was surprisingly straightforward. As with the Winthrop Glacier, I was surprised at how closed-up the crevasses still were, allowing us fairly easy passage. As we ascended near the base of Liberty Ridge there were a few crevasses to be crossed. These would be worrisome in a few hours, but right now the snow was solid and we crossed easily. We noticed a party of three descending the lower part of Liberty Ridge as the Colorado climbers made their first steps onto it’s steep Western slope. I wondered why they were retreating with conditions as good as they were. By the time I was ready to step from the glacier to the ridge, we were crossing paths with the descending team. I stopped to talk with the middle man as Doug talked to their leader behind me. The climber in front of me admitted that he had turned them around because he was concerned about a reported difficulty placing ice screws for protection. Indeed, the ranger had told us at check in that during the rescue of the week before, one ranger reported a hard thin ice crust, with a few inches of underlying unconsolidated snow, followed by a thin layer of good ice. After clearing away the snow, the ranger encountered dirt under about three inches of ice, making it very difficulty to put in solid ice screw protection. He also mentioned that the climbing conditions were good. As we began to climb, and the upper, more serious part of the route came into view, we decided that the conditions would be good for climbing but bad for falling. So we decided not to fall. Doug and I each had three screws that we had planned on using in a running belay, but we soon realized that the key to maximizing safety on this route would be to depend on our climbing ability, speed and focus, rather than depending on ropes and anchors.
The climb up to Thumb rock was not especially difficult, although most of it is a No Fall Zone, meaning a fall by either of us would be serious and difficult to stop. At Thumb, as expected, we caught up with the Colorado climbers, who had already erected their tent on a nice platform that had been established by the team that had just descended. We all greeted each other warmly, and they promptly offered to help us dig bivy platforms. Their tent was on the Western edge of the narrow, uphill prow of Thumb Rock, exposed to the current wind. The only other logical bivy site was on the Eastern side of Thumb, which was very calm and warm in the noon sun. We used their shovels to excavate a cozy bivy site, as we had brought only a single shovel blade, without a handle, to save weight. Soon our camp was set, snow was melting in our pack covers in the sun, boots were drying again, and we were figuring out what we should eat next to lighten our packs. Since we had arrived at Thumb well before noon we had a lot of time to kill. We traded stories with the Colorado climbers and soon found out their names; Tom, an emergency room physician (always good to have nearby on such a trip), and Rich, who headed up a nonprofit outdoor organization. From our conversation and story trading we gradually learned that these two had sufficient experience and composure, as well as an easy going attitude, that we felt very comfortable with the thought of teaming up with them on summit day. Tom indicated that it would be good for our teams to stay close enough together to be able to pool our resources in the event of unexpected problems on summit day, and we agreed.
We lazed around the afternoon with a pleasurable lethargy, knowing that tomorrow would involve a heavy physical and mental workload. Tom went to take a nap in the tent. The area is known for rockfall, and one dinner-plate sized rock came tearing down the slope toward the tent with Tom inside, spinning like a buzz saw, and came within a couple of feet of slashing through right through the tent. I promptly built a retaining wall of snow blocks on the uphill side of our bivy site to avoid having our melons crushed by any errant rockfall while we slept. The next morning we did find a boot-sized rock buried in the wall.
We watched two or three impressive serac falls cause avalanches down the Willis Wall, which is like watching a house on fire across the street, far enough away to not really be dangerous, but close enough to evoke awe and even a little adrenaline.
We prepared for summit day. Everything was in order, conditions were good, and we would be ready and well rested. I called my wife on my cell phone to try to get an updated weather forecast, as the one we were operating on was now 48 hours old. I never actually spoke to her but we traded voice mails. The report that we got from her indicated that our high pressure system was deteriorating sooner than expected, and some degree of bad weather would likely hit our mountain sometime on summit day. This news cast a shadow of doubt over our lighthearted foursome as we settled in to our sleeping bags, and tried to come up with a logical formula that would tell us whether to risk an ascent that would require travel over the top of the mountain and down the Emmons glacier, or risk the notoriously dangerous descent back down the lower part of the ridge to head back the way we came. I have attempted Rainier probably 15 times, mostly on hard routes or in the Winter. Never have I been able to stop worrying about the weather, and the mountain was obviously not about to grant me that luxury now.
The plan was to awake at 3:00 a.m. and be away from camp by 4:00, or 4:30 at the latest. I woke up at 3 a.m. to a blanket of stars above me, indicating clear skies. The barometer had stayed relatively stable with mild fluctuations. We crawled out of our comfortable bags against the chill and began final preparations. I fired up the stove for a hot start breakfast of overly diluted oatmeal to ensure extra hydration before we left. I filled a nalgene with water and cytomax, while I had already topped off a two liter hydration bladder the night before. I had slept with the bladder to make sure that the tubing didn’t freeze, but now in the open air it was already starting to freeze at either end of the tube, despite purging it as best I could. Doug and I were nearly ready, and we had been noticing headlights in Tom and Rich’s tent, so we knew that they were getting ready as well. We were constantly glancing up into the dark sky to watch for weather patterns. Just before sunrise, when the sky is too dark to see clouds and too bright to see stars, we thought we could see a cloud layer blowing in from the Southwest, the usual source of bad weather for Rainier. A difficulty of climbing on this side of the mountain is that it’s bulk blocks the view toward the horizon from which the bad weather comes, so an foulness can be difficult to predict until it is about to hit you. This started a conversation about whether we should go up, or go down. Going down was unappealing and dicey, but so was the thought of being caught in a storm high on this route. We stalled until the sky became lighter, and it became clear that what we had seen was a band of clouds followed by crystal clear blue sky. I stated my climbing philosophy regarding critical decision making while climbing; As I make critical decisions, I place myself in the future, with various outcomes, and essentially try not to make a decision that I can later look back upon as a mistake. I stated out loud that if we get stuck later on, this would be our point of error, this very moment. Doug was very hesitant to ascend. I waffled. Time was critical and being wasted. The weather that we could see looked good, so did the route. We were ready. It was time to get it on.
Rich led out traversing toward the Western side (climber’s right) of the rock outcropping above Thumb, with Tom roped behind him. I had waffled so much that our final preparations had stalled, so Doug and I frantically finished packing and saddling up. I led off in Tom’s tracks, setting a controlled pace with every movement deliberate and focused. We rounded the corner of the rock outcropping and I turned left, finally heading up, finally doing the dance with Liberty Ridge. It felt good to go up. Having an ice tool in each hand was comforting, and I enjoyed the steepness as it sharpened my focus and promised rapid elevation gain if we traveled efficiently. I Could see Tom up ahead, and would spend the next few hours looking for his back, or the bottom of his boots when it got steep. I lost him occasionally when he went around a corner, but never for long. My plan had been to trade lead teams so we could keep a fresh body on point to kick steps and keep all four of us moving quickly, but I couldn’t quite catch Tom and Rich. They live at 9,000 feet so had an advantage of acclimatization, or maybe they were just in better shape or climbing more efficiently. Whatever the case, every time I sped up enough to gain on them I would get lightheaded. We had already agreed that we were to maintain absolute focus on every movement, three points of contact with the mountain at all times, no falling. My movements were less precise when I became lightheaded, so I climbed just slow enough to keep a sharp mind. We ascended well upward, through a few rock bands and over a few patches of water ice with areas of styrofoam snow. By the time we exited from under the Black Pyramid onto the ice face I was becoming comfortable with the climb. We were roped but placing no protection. I think that the speed advantage gained by essentially free climbing added to our safety. There is always the question regarding the use of a rope between two climbers on a climb like this without anchors. I thought it best to stay roped for several reasons; previous accidents had been minimized by roped falls catching on rocks, there was a possibility in a few places, although remote, that a fall could be held, the rope ensured that we stayed close, and maybe most importantly, knowing that Doug’s life at the other end of the rope was directly related to my climbing further enhanced my focus. I think he felt the same way, and we have been climbing long enough together to trust each other in such situations. Besides, the climbing conditions were excellent! Some areas of forefoot steps, patches of water ice, and a bounty of styrofoam snow that seemed to solidly envelope the pick on my tool on the first swing every time. This is what we were here for, and the route did indeed live up to it’s reputation as a classic climb. It is hard to describe the feeling of (simul) free climbing such a route, the exposure, the focus, the trust in your partner, and the feeling that you are accepting the mountain on its own terms, trusting your ability and focus to handle what the mountain throws at you, in a way that instills feelings of purity, gratitude, and appreciative humility all wrapped up together.
Near the top of the ice face we caught up with Tom and Rich as Rich was doing some trial and error route finding. We were in an area of ice fall and crevasses, but still with good ice at this point. This was the only area that we placed and pro at all, placing one screw in addition to ice tools as a quick belay anchor, and then one other screw as running pro just a little higher up. In retrospect we didn’t really need to place these screws, as this area was no harder than any of the other areas that we free-simuled.
The weather was becoming noticeably worse, with winds starting to pick up and clouds gradually enveloping us so subtly that it took a while before I noticed that our visibility was no longer limitless, but slowly becoming more and more dimished. To pass the upper most bergschrund and gain the slopes of Liberty Cap, we traversed hard right, across steep slopes on deep and unconsolidated windblown snow above crevasses and icefall, to a ramp that took us out from underneath the hanging Liberty Cap glacier and onto it’s Northwest flank. From there it was a slow march toward the summit of Liberty Cap in gradually increasing winds and whiteout. Fatigue exacerbated by altitude was now becoming factor as we surpassed the 14,000 foot mark. We trudged up a broad snow ridge toward what must be Liberty Cap, it was the highest point of ground in the area, although we could no longer see where we were going. At some point we had lost sight of Rich and Tom, but encountered them coming perpendicularly from our left. We debated which way Liberty Cap and the summit were, as I insisted we were headed in the right direction. We continued on, as Tom and Rich once again moved more quickly than us, and eventually moving out of sight when Doug and I stopped to put our last insulating layer on. Shortly after we continued, reminiscent of Curtis Ridge, Rich and Tom came out of the whiteout down the ridge toward us. They said they had reached Liberty Cap, just a few minutes away, but that the wind and visibility were even worse there. Taking stock of our present situation I began to realize that we were facing a full-on storm with a whiteout on top of Rainier. It didn’t take much discussion to conclude that we should find a sheltered area, dig in and set up the tent. I cautiously stepped down the leeward side of the ridge in deep, soft snow, over a crevasse, into an area formed by cornice and crevasse, that was partially sheltered from the brunt of the wind. Rich and Tom set up their tent, then we handed in all the sleeping pads and bags, and eventually crawled in one by one. It was a 2-3 person tent, so we had to contort ourselves and tangle with one another to fit inside. Tom held Rich’s foot on his bare stomach for quite a while, there was a very large blister on the end of the big toe and it wasn’t clear if it was from kicking steps all the way up the route, or frostbite, or a combination of both. The discomfort that it caused obviously increased as it warmed up. Tom brewed up tea that we passed around, and we all relaxed a bit as we warmed up and felt relatively safe inside the tent We had topped out on Liberty cap somewhere between 11:00 and noon. After a few hours in the tent we realized that we would be spending the night, so we gradually prepared our sleeping gear. We had a fairly thick insulating layer with all the sleeping pads crammed in the tent, then a layer of synthetic bags, with two down bags spread over the top of us. The pile of pads, bodies and bags nearly filled the tent, but we stayed very warm. We vowed never to divulge the exact physical arrangement that was necessary for four grown men to occupy such a small space, but it was remarkably warm.
The night passed slowly. I took the first turn shoveling the drifting snow off of the tent. The combination of drifting snow outside and ice layer forming on the inside of the single-wall North Face tent gradually made for extremely stagnant air that disrupted breathing already labored by the altitude at 14,100+ feet. We tried to vent the sides and ends, but too much venting allowed blasts of spindrift in, and eventually the mesh screen over the vents would ice over. We were in relatively good spirits and wiled away a lot of time joking and even playing cards. Tom had brought cards and a few other luxuries that we all enjoyed, in contrast to the very sparse packs that Doug and I had assembled. We felt that we could sit out bad weather for several days in this manner if necessary, and combined most of our food together to be rationed. Dinner was a dehydrated meal that we each took two bites of until it was gone. Then for dessert we dived Reese’s peanut butter cups in fourths, it was amazing how such a small amount of chocolate was so satisfying. Ever since first occupying the tent I had been trying to contact the climbing rangers to let them know our situation, and that we were fine and needed no help. My phone service was excellent one second then gone the next, so I was never able to make a connection, I think it had something to do with the storm. Between attempts to call the ranger and my wife I must have made fifty tries, none ever went through. Our primary goal at that time was to avoid anything that would be media-worthy. There had already been a lot of media attention surrounding two accidents on this route this year, and we really wanted to avoid having a spotlight put on us. We did realize, however, that we were in a situation that could easily develop into something “newsworthy,” which meant that an uplanned camp in a storm on top of Liberty Ridge was not where we wanted to be. We stayed focused on basic tasks that needed to be done, developed strategies for various likely scenarios, and came up with some plans for how we could navigate our way through the storm if it came to that. The first task was to make it to the main summit cone of Rainier. We would need to move over Liberty Cap, down onto the broad summit plateau, and onto the main summit cone. From there we could traverse the North side toward the standard Emmons glacier descent, or, if visibility was still poor, navigate our way into the summit crater. We knew from previous Winter attempts that a climber can find decent protection from bad weather within the crater itself. We could dig in again there, try to navigate down the Emmons if conditions allowed, or even head down the standard Disappointment Cleaver route. We didn’t know if the Emmons would be marked with wands, and suspected that the wind would have covered any recent boot tracks to follow. We knew that the DC route was more likely to have an obvious path to follow. Everything would depend on weather and visibility, so we were very anxious to try to get a weather update to help us make a decision. Doug and I have worked our way out of summit storms with 70-80 mph winds on winter climbs on Rainier before, and I guess that I had used those particularly heinous conditions as a yardstick against which to measure other experiences, which had actually been worse than a four-day Denali storm that we sat through once. I kept thinking that conditions on this trip could not possibly degenerate into those conditions, but I would be proven wrong. A lesson that I thought I had learned was never to be surprised at the severity of conditions that could be generated by this mountain. Maybe because this climb was done during very late Spring, I was caught off guard by what we would run into.
We took turns shoveling off the tent through the night and into the morning. For breakfast we each had; ¼ of a stale bagel, a quarter-sized piece of cheese, ¼ of a Clif bar, and a couple of spoonfuls from a bowl of cereal. We passed around a single mug of tea for drinks. From the bright yellow glow coming through the tent one would have thought that there were clear skies outside, but the storm and whiteout were still there. Sometimes there would be a momentary lull, everyone would stop and listen to see if it was over, but then it would crash onto the tent like, as Rich said, someone throwing buckets of Grapenuts against the tent walls. We did gain hope as we had obvious moments of increased brightness, which meant the sun was trying to burn through the whiteout. We imagined that the rest of the Northwest could be in nice weather, and a Seattleite could look up at Rainier and see a lenticular cloud floating harmlessly about the summit. Except that we were in the lenticular and it was about as harmless as a tornado. Tom got out of the tent for his second round of snow shoveling and remarked at how much snow had accumulated in a short time. I decided to get out and take a picture of it, which turned out to be the reason that I didn’t lose my camera. Once outside I noticed that Tom was having a difficult time keeping up with the drifting snow, so I grabbed the other shovel and started digging. I realized it was going to take a long effort so yelled in to Doug and Rich to that we would have to trade off with shovel teams. The visibility had windows of improvement, but the wind had worsened. The wind would lull, gust, and change direction repeatedly, throwing stunning blasts of snow and ice into my face despite constantly trying to turn my back into it. I was trying to shovel off the short vestibule so that the others could exit the tent and avoid a lot of snow blowing in, but no matter how much I shoveled, I was fighting a losing battle. My reality seemed to tweak a bit as I realized that two of us, shoveling as hard as we could, were not able to keep up with the drifting snow as it started to press heavily against the sides of the tent. Later on Doug told me that he had to fight to pull his boots out from under the sagging tent on the inside, and he and Rich were barely able to get there clothes and boots on and get out before the doorway started pinching shut. There were moments of confusion as we tried to decide what to do, then it became a salvage effort to try to get essential gear out of the tent before we lost it completely. Tom was headfirst in the opening handing back gear to be stuffed into packs before it blew away. He almost got stuck as the opening squeezed down smaller and smaller. The tent poles were bending grotesquely, and when I looked closely I could see that they were breaking. We realized the severity of our predicament as Tom had to finally tear through the top of the tent with an ice tool in an attempt to reach more gear, but that bought only a few more moments. The tent, our shelter in the storm, was gone. With it was the bag of food to be rationed, sleeping pads, a sleeping bags, water, and a whole lot of other gear and essential items. The tent had been anchored by pickets and four ice tools, all now gone. Ropes and crampons and other gear that had been outside of the tent were in danger of being lost. We argued for a moment about what to do. The visibility was improving enough to travel, but the storm had evolved into a ground blizzard with, as I found out later, over 100 mph winds. We could dig a cave and hunker down or try to fight our way out in the storm. I insisted on trying to leave. Tom went up onto the ridge, out of our semi-protected area, and returned with a report that he didn’t think we could travel in this storm. I started crawling up onto the ridge myself to see, but before ever getting on top of it, was struck by an invisible freight train of wind and snow, and retreated. I knew we had to leave, but had serious doubts if we could make it in the storm. If we tried to travel in the storm and faltered for any reason, we would have no place to retreat to, and our party would be over.
Rich called a huddle. We bent in and crossed arms over backs as if calling a football play in order to have a coherent and rational discussion in the blizzard. Doug headed the decision to dig in, so we set to digging. Doug and Rich started out, while Tom and I moved the snow away from the site. Doug started making good headway. I was having difficulty staying warm so I joined Doug, who had carved out enough of a hole to get out of the wind. There was an ice layer under a few feet of snow that was unconsolidated near the top, so we had difficulty at first, making a couple of false starts before finding a direction that we could expand in enough to get all four of us in there. Rich stayed valiantly outside to remove the snow debris away from the mouth of the cave as formed a chain to push the debris out of the cave. I have no Idea how long it took, but eventually Tom was able to come in out of the wind, and then Rich.We layed some thin bivy pads down to insulate us from the icy floor. Doug and I had gotten soaked, which usually happens digging a snow cave, and were having a tough time getting warm, so the two of us spooned with Tom to get warm. Our feet were completely numb, and although I tried keep the blood circulating I could not tell if my toes were responding at all to my brains commands to move. We were shaking for a long time, but generating enough heat to start drying our clothes, causing a lot of steam in the cave. Rich started brewing water. Fortunately Tom had rescued the stove and fuel, a Hanging Bibler, and we soon had a mug to share. We talked about our options, but needed an updated weather forecast in order to make the best decision. I felt we could survive the night if we had to, but knew that with almost no food and fuel we would be hard pressed to outlast a multiday storm. Tom somehow managed to reach a ranger on his cell phone, but we had to wait for someone to call us back. We didn’t hear back from them for a while so he called back, but his phone battery died. He used my phone, and despite my lack of success trying to call out from the cave, Tom’s magic fingers coerced the phone into a connection once again with the ranger. The news was not especially good, but I was glad to hear it. The wind would remain the same for two or three more days. No one could really help us, so we would have to help ourselves. The ranger strongly suggested that if we had decent visibility, we should “get the hell out of there.” Rich thanked her and hung up. Our decision was made. I was glad to have a plan of action, the thought of fighting hypothermia, dehydration and starvation for several days in an ice cave near the top of Rainier was abhorrent to me.
Slowly we started preparing to go back outside. We tried to do an inventory of gear but would need to go through the packs outside. We managed to scrounge up one ice tool per person, but were short two pairs of crampons. Rich and possibly Tom and Doug doug near where the tent was buried for the other crampons while I started gearing up in the cave, eventually having to move outside as well. By no small miracle they were able to find the other two pairs of crampons, without these the descent may have been impossible. We packed up as best we could and started saddling up. It felt like climbing stories I had read. I had to remove my overmitts to don crampons, harness, etc, but my fingers would go numb quickly, so the process took a long time. Ice would form on my nose and eyelashes as I tried to see through my glacier glasses. The glasses would ice up with the next blast of snow so I took them off until we were about ready to move. Rich prepped the rope and we all tied in; Tom first, then Rich, me and Doug at then end. Tom move up onto the ridge. I tried to watch him but it put my face into the wind so I couldn’t see what was happening. Eventually I saw Rich claw his way up onto the ridge. It was painful to stand there and I was having a hard time imagining what was taking so long, until I finally moved up onto the ridge, into the full force of the wind myself. The wind knocked me down onto my hands and knees a few times. I felt like a boxer trying to stay upright on wobbly legs that wouldn’t hold when the next blow came. I had a moment on my hands and knees when I had serious doubts that we would be able to force our way through this blizzard, that our fatigue, thirst, hunger and cold would undermine our human ability to finish this fight. This thought was fleeting, and I pushed the doubt away and solidly planted in my mind that this is was our task and it would be done. I looked up and saw Rich in front of me, stumbling wildly from side to side in an attempt to stay upright. The cornice was off to our left and I would not have been the least bit surprised if I had seen him blown right off the side. The rope between us was taught, suspended in an arch out to our left, hovering in space well above the snow. We slowly stumbled our way over Liberty Cap as Tom looked for a good way down onto the broad saddle connecting the Cap to the main summit cone. As we descended down to the saddle the wind lost some of its ferocity, but still numbed everything on the right side of my body as it remained a constant force. We plodded across the plateau, and then Doug took the lead, partly to generate some heat for himself, but also because he and I were more familiar with this mountain and would have an easier time routefinding our way down. Looking at Liberty cap we could see the wind screaming over its summit. The visibility was excellent, and it would have been a beautiful summit day if not for the wind. We traversed around the North side of the summit cone, about 200-300 feet below the crater. There was a cloud layer hovering around 10,000-11,000 feet so we couldn’t get a visual on Steamboat Prow, where the North side climbing ranger is stationed at Camp Schurman. Eventually we triangulated our position between the upper part of Curtis Ridge and Little Tahoma and started a downward traverse. There was no boot track to follow, but we the immediate visibility was good and we were gradually descending out of the wind. We started to get glimpses of Steamboat Prow through the clouds below and planned our line of descent. Eventually we came across nearly-buried wands that had marked the route up “The Corridor” on the Emmons glacier. Doug’s contacts were fouling his eyes so I took over on point, and gradually took us down nearly to Camp Schurman. By then my legs had become jello from plunge stepping most of the way down, so Tom took the lead. I actually punched a leg through a hidden crevasse about 100 feet from the ranger hut, never let your guard down. The ranger, who has watched most of our descent, appeared glad to see us. He offered much needed water. I don’t know our timeline for that day precisely, but it had been around 8:00 a.m. when Tom had gotten out to shovel off the tent, and we arrived at Camp Schurman at about 5:30 p.m. The ranger offered to make some calls for us, so I wrote out a message to relay to my wife. We told parts of our story to the ranger and some other young climbers who were still at the deserted high camp. Rich mentioned that we had gotten spanked up there, but the ranger said that we had done well, and had finished the climb in good style. Maybe we suffered a spanking in good style.
The slog down the Inter glacier through deep and wet snow, until we descended to where it steepens sufficiently to do some glissading. The glissading took us away from all of the objective hazard, lightened our moods, and sent us trodding nonchalantly to Glacier Basin. We beat feet out to the car, just making in out in the last of the daylight, and cracking one of Tom’s celebratory beers by 9:00 p.m. We had finally done the ridge, made it through a rough night near the summit, and now accomplished our final goal; no media.
Tom, Rich and Doug all missed their flights out of town that day. We traded info with Tom and Rich, but were sadly unable to debrief over fat hamburgers and beers, as Doug and I had to get moving, so we parted ways with them at a gas station in Enumclaw.
I dropped Doug off at a relatives house Des Moines, his wife had already rebooked his flight for the next morning. I drove back to my home just North of Seattle, worried almost as much about staying awake on the road as I was on the mountain. Pulling into my driveway was surreal, its always odd to be back in the comfort and safety of home after having a hairball adventure a few hours earlier.
After showering I finally made it to bed at 1:00 a.m., setting my alarm to get up for work in the morning as if I’d had a normal weekend.
There was no feeling that could have possibly been sweeter than crawling into my own bed snuggling up to wife that night.
Someone requested a gear discussion with this report/story, but I don’t have time at the moment to write it. I also have pics to go along with this and will post them once I have figured out how to do it.
The only residual effects I have from the trip, besides losing a lot of gear and swallowing a big chunk of humble pie, are frost nipped fingers and toes, still numb after ten days.
Three days after returning home, I received multiple phone calls from rangers at MRNP. At first they were looking for possible info on climber that were a day behind us, since we were the closest party to them. Then the calls were to gather info as to what might have happened to them, as they found the body of the Montana climber, and his partner presumed to be dead. I don’t even know what to say. This Liberty Ridge accident affected me more than the ones before my trip, and added depth to my gratitude as well as sadness.
My wife and I have had serious talks about my climbing habit, mainly why I do it and how fair is it to those care about me, very interesting but a whole other thread.