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[TR] Mt. Rainier June 6-8, 2003 - Liberty Ridge, 6/6/2003

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Trip: Mt. Rainier June 6-8, 2003 - Liberty Ridge,


Date: 6/6/2003


Trip Report:

Greg, Ray and I intended to climb Liberty Ridge the summer of 2003. We’d been climbing together for a couple of years and thought we were comfortable tackling the objective. Regardless of the outcome, we were sure we’d have a great experience as Greg and I looked up to Ray as a mentor. Greg and I each had a couple of seasons of good experience but were really leaning on Ray’s decade of climbing to lead the team through any technical difficulties we encountered. When a weather window appeared in early June, Ray announced he would withdraw because of concerns with his fitness and a recent allery issues. However, he suggested Bruce (a British ex-pat) substitute as the team lead. I had met Bruce once rock climbing in the rain at Little Si and allowed my ambition to drown the thoughts of concern about climbing a committing route with an unknown partner. We exchanged a few bravado filled emails and agreed to depart early Friday morning. After all, we could always retreat if the team dynamics weren’t “gelling”. Friday dawned as forecasted for the next three days, clear and hot.

We drove to the White River ranger station and obtained a permit to camp on the Carbon Glacier as the preferred Curtis Ridge camp was full. Eager to immediately establish my value to the team in the White River parking lot, I cajoled Bruce and Greg into sorting through our packs to verify we were not carrying any duplicate items. Out went rolls of TP, toothpaste, extra ice tools, first aid and repair kits. Also jettisoned was Bruce’s superfluous tube of SPF 55 sunscreen as I assured him of my plentiful supply. We each were equipped with a sleeping bag, bivy sack and I carried the rope while Greg carried the stove. My pack weighted in at 38 lbs, 4 lbs less than Bruce’s but having relieved him of his excessively heavy tube of sunscreen I was satisfied that I had done my generous part to relieve his burden.

We reached Glacier Basin and hung our running shoes and shorts in a bag for retrieval on our decent. The weather was beautiful clear sky and warm temps. We topped off our water provisions in the creek and hiked up and over St. Elmo’s pass, stopping on the Winthrop Glacier for Bruce to re-apply sunscreen. I had thought my 1oz bottle of sunscreen would be plenty for our faces and necks but Bruce was as lily skinned as they come and was already starting to show some pink.

We reached Curtis Ridge in early afternoon and set up camp just below on the Carbon Glacier. It was so hot that puddles of water were everywhere on the glacier and it became evident we needed to move our camp to the rocky area on Curtis Ridge. Despite all of the permits for this camp being taken, nobody was there. After setting up our camp, we spoke with the climbing rangers who passed through about this issue and they insisted that we had to camp on the Carbon Glacier if that’s what our permits stated. We grudgingly moved our bivy sacks back to the driest spots we could find. I remember Seattle set a record for heat that day but Bruce was resolved to avoid the sun and sweat it out in the shelter of his bivy sack. He was growing concerned that I had not packed enough sunscreen for three days. I was growing concerned that he did not share my enthusiasm for “slow and light” alpinism. A team of Canadians arrived late in the day and established a camp on Curtis Ridge. They succeeded in setting off a smallish rockslide that didn’t quite reach us but did result in Greg offering some constructive criticism on mountain etiquette lest they disturb his naptime again.

Saturday morning dawned with the typical morning routine, a cup of coffee and the call of nature. When I returned, Greg asked for the roll of TP. I explained that no extreme alpinist would waste a single calorie to carry TP on an expedition such as this. He chuckled then looked into my eyes with a seriousness that expressed consequences in my immediate future if I didn’t produce some TP. I explained the refreshing “snowball” technique employed by all good alpinists. He was unconvinced and went about humbly obtaining a few sheets of tissue from the Canadian team he had chastised the day before. Bruce emerged from his sweat sack just as red as a lobster. We agreed to move quickly to obtain the high camp at Thumb Rock and hopefully some shade for Bruce. The hike to Thumb Rock was uneventful, just a few cobbles to dodge as they hurtled down the mountain and trying to ascend slowly collapsing piles of scree. At times it felt like we were on a treadmill because there is so much rock moving “down” as we attempted to climb “up”.

Upon arrival at Thumb Rock we selected a large platform on the crest of the ridge and set to removing a few random sized rocks occupying the platform. As we were removing the rocks, Bruce made an interesting observation that the rocks had landed there after being shed off the ridge above. We agreed wearing helmets while at camp would be appropriate and donned our hats. Once settled, Bruce asked for the stove to start melting snow to rehydrate and fill water bottles for tomorrow. I advised we conserve what little fuel remained to heat water in the morning for coffee and breakfast. Bruce seemed agitated that the light weight style of alpinism was causing so much discomfort and expressed concern about if we were pinned down by a storm. As I attempted to convince Bruce that this particular style of alpinism did not allow for being pinned down by a storm it finally occurred to me that we probably had different expectations of commitment to the route. We agreed to conserve the little bit of fuel and experimented with how efficiently the sunshine would melt snow piled on a dark surface such as his bivy sack and we spent the afternoon melting snow and deepening the redness of his exposed skin. What a great adventure Bruce was having!

At one point in the afternoon, lounging in the sun there was a distinct crack and enormous “BOOM”. We gaped in amazement as the entire upper mountain was engulfed in a white cloud. Rumbling and shaking the mountainside, a large serac had collapsed off Liberty Cap and started its menacing decent towards our camp. I had time to shove on my boots, grab my ice axe and start sprinting toward the lee side of Thumb Rock. However, a cursory glance over my shoulder confirmed our worst nightmare; the entire ridge was to be engulfed by the wall of ice now crashing down the mountain. At the last moment, the wave of debris was miraculously parted by the rocky ridge above us and slid off to each side. Peering around, I observed the Canadian team standing in awe as the cloud of spindrift encompassed the camp.


Liberty_Ridge_Avalanche.jpg (photo barrowed from the gallery)


As the cloud dissipated, hoots of relief were shouted. The debris appeared to run out 1000’ onto the Carbon Glacier far below. The Canadians graded the avalanche a class 4 and agreed it was far larger than any they had witnessed while on a recent expedition to the Himalayas. I frantically started packing my gear to retreat. Greg asked what I why I was packing my gear. I informed him that we were getting the heck out of there before the next avalanche swept us from the face of the mountain. After consulting with Bruce, the two of them convinced me we were probably just as safe to continue up the route later that night. I spent some time burrowing a small cave into the uphill side of the platform, just large enough to protect my head (not in the face!) from the debris hurtling down the mountain.

Alone with my thoughts of why was I here in this moment on the side of this mountain with my head in a hole like an ostrich (metaphorically and literally) while my loving family is warm in their beds at home intruded my attempts at slumber. I was not surprised to find out later that my wife was thinking the same thing at the same exact time. The alarm sounded just as I started to doze off. I remember a Guide (Alex VanSteen?) once dismissively explained that it’s not necessary to sleep soundly the night before a climb, just that you’re horizontal and resting your body for a few hours. I believe this advice is somewhat correct but, as I found, not necessarily welcome at 1am when trying to roust your crabby partners. After having a cup of coffee, I decided to defer the second part of my normal morning routine until necessary appendages were “unclenched” anticipated to occur when reaching the safety of the lower mountain later that day.

We decided to follow the Canadian team and gave them a 15 minute head start. A 3,000’ ladder of bucket steps kicked into the slope up the route to the Bergshrund were our reward. In the morning light at the lip of the schrund, I noticed Bruce was actually looking pale, despite his severe sunburn. He unconvincingly reassured us he was feeling ok. We constructed an anchor out of Greg’s and my ice axes, gave Bruce the single second ice tool we were sharing, two pickets and the remaining slings. Bruce hesitated with the step across the schrund to the 20’ tall and slightly overhanging wall of snow. I asked him if he was sure he would be strong enough to claw his way up the other side. He weakly replied, “I hope so”. I reminded him that I was confident in leading this section and this would indeed be a very bad place to take a fall. He grimaced in acknowledgement and lunged across the void. Bruce immediately struggled as he moved higher since there were no holds or good axe placements available, just semi-consolidated snow. Bruce was struggling as Greg and I shouted encouragement and suggested he sink a picket before he ascended higher. He gingerly placed the picket and clipped the rope through. Testing the sling with his full weight was successful and a sigh of relief turned into what sounded like three 10 year old girls simultaneously screeching in horror as Bruce moved up while holding the picket (removing it from its placement) and only protection between him and my hastily constructed anchor and started pin wheeling backwards through the air over my head.

Bruce fell 15’ onto the lip of the schrund and as I reeled in the rope and his momentum accelerated down toward the Thermogenisis chute. His fall was quickly arrested and he lay groaning on the snow. I looked at Greg to suggest he provide some assistance and we stood frozen, gaping at what just occurred. After a few seconds of staring at each other like idiots, (mouth and eyes open wide), we secured Bruce to the anchor and he sheepishly started to move around and crawl back up to our position. He said he was uninjured and hadn’t lost any of the gear. My adrenaline was racing so I insisted he hand over the ice tool and pickets. Leaving my pack at the belay, I succeeded in clawing my way up the overhanging snow by gracefully swimming, grunting, stemming, chicken winging and knee barring. Once I made it to the platform, I clipped the ice tool to the rope and slid it back down to Greg. Keeping a tight belay, (my appetite for style had somewhat diminished at this point) I hauled my partners and their packs as quickly as I could. I relinquished the lead to Bruce and we finished the climb to Liberty Cap taking notice of a faint path appearing to traverse around the crevice we had surmounted directly. Bruce was feeling quite ill at this point so we took a few quick photos and headed for the Emmons to descend. I was starting to realize how audacious it was not to bring any extra stove fuel as were all showing the effects of dehydration.

The descent went quickly, and in a few short hours, we were in Glacier Basin changing back into shorts and running shoes. We were so thirsty; we lay down next to the creek and took long drinks right out of the stream for what seemed like hours. Guts full of water; we sloshed out to the trailhead. Along the way we encountered several hikers and relished in telling everybody we met on the trail how we’d climbed Liberty Ridge. We broke out the cooler and each popped a beer open and toasted the mountain. The warm beer gagged all three of us. It was so hot while we were on the mountain that it melted the two bags of ice to 90 degree water. Gross. We drove to McDonalds with a subdued satisfaction but a guilty feeling lingered like we’d gotten away with something we probably shouldn’t have. Only when we were in McDonalds at Puyallup, did I realize the extent of Bruce’s sunburn. Other customers gasped in alarm as they noticed his blistered arms and face.

Sitting in that filthy booth, Bruce somberly stated that he was probably going to quit climbing. He admitted to thinking about it the entire trip and was now sure of his decision. I considered this an ironic statement considering the climb we had completed. Waiting for him to deliver the punch line to his obvious joke, I looked at his face and realized he was serious. It was the last time I would see Bruce and after a couple of post climb emails, lost touch with him other all together. In the ensuing years it occurs to me that with Bruce’s level of experience quadrupling mine and Greg’s together, he did not see the climb as a victory so much as his near miss with disaster and feeling responsible for ours. I came to understand on a deeper level that technical proficiency, good gear and fitness does not necessarily prepare you for the level of commitment required to attempt routes like Liberty Ridge. Few brilliant alpinists seem to be born with the fortitude to “hang it out there” for days and weeks. Desk jockeys obsessing about great routes climbed by talented climbers and convincing themselves that they have the “tools” can turn sincere ambition into blind foolishness, even on a trade route like Liberty Ridge. Failing to discuss your unilateral decisions that would have consequences for the entire team and not respecting your partner’s decisions because of the latest style or trend can be downright perilous.



Gear Notes:

Bring sunscreen, more ice, TP.


Approach Notes:

White River/St. Elmo's Pass/Curtis Ridge

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