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[TR] Rainier - Liberty Ridge 7/5/2012

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Trip: Rainier - Liberty Ridge


Date: 7/5/2012


Trip Report:

I'll start off saying this report is quite long and detailed. It's written for variable audiences. If you want, skip to the pictures.


Liberty Ridge has been a long time objective of mine ever since living in Seattle in 1996. Every clear day I could see the mountain from the city on my way home from work. After leaving Seattle I had a rough go at Ptarmigan Ridge which left me spending two nights in a crevasse waiting out a storm before I could bail off the mountain.


This year was fairly ambitious for me. Originally, I was working on spending a month on Denali as medical rescue. With a newborn son in April, I decided (read: my wife heavily objected) to make a couple of shorter trips closer to home. The original plan was to climb the route over Memorial Day weekend with a follow-up in June on The Nose of El Cap in Yosemite. The Nose went well with a friend who had attempted that route 3 other times but the Memorial Day idea failed due to weather and work issues. We rescheduled for the weekend after the 4th of July. I knew this was a gamble being late in the season and the risk of not being able to cross the Carbon Glacier.


My partner and I, a fellow ski patroller at Mt. Badly, watched the weather forecast intently as our dates approached. Storms were predicted the week before we were supposed to get to Mt. Rainier but a high pressure system was to follow with stable weather for all but the last night on the mountain. We would take it along with scorching temperatures. Sundays highs on the summit were predicted at 42 degrees F.


July 5th finally came and everything seemed to be in place. My partner and I took separate flights to SEA-TAC and arrived between 11:30 PM and midnight. We met up in baggage claim and took the shuttle to the new car rental facility. The process was quick and we were down a level deciding which car to choose. We picked up a Chrysler 200 and were on the road by 1 AM. Barely any traffic was around on our way to Mt. Rainier. We made one stop at a grocery store to pick up last minute supplies and were on our way again. Before too long we were at the Ranger Station to get some sleep before a 6 AM wake-up to get permits. As soon as we pulled into the parking spot I realized we had no fuel for my stove. We forgot to stop at a gas station for some fuel for my MSR XGK II!!


Back in the car to Greenwater for the last gas station. Not more than 5 minutes later a large thunk was followed by a wing against my driver side window. I knew immediately from the wing it was an owl. I tried to look in my side view mirror to see if it was in the road but the mirror was gone. We stopped the car, turned around, and slowly drove back towards the collision. The bird was in the middle of the road at the exact spot where I hit him. I got out of the car and placed him on the side of the road. I was really hoping this wasn't a bad omen for the trip. We found the mirror which was barely useful as there were countless cracks throughout it. I placed it back in its housing and off we went to find the gas station closed. An additional 20 miles took us to Enumclaw where I got my 1.5 L of fuel. Another 40 miles and we were back at the Ranger station. Now at 4 AM we could finally get some sleep.



By 6 AM we heard people starting to arrive so jumped out of the car. One party was already camped out in front of the door so we took our spots at 6:15 AM. The doors opened at 7 AM and we picked up our permits for Liberty Ridge without any problems. There were at least 20-25 people behind us in line so we were glad we got in line when we did.


Now off to the trails. We repacked what we needed and left a few things behind. Packs weighed in between 60-65 lbs. Not ideal for what we were doing but we figured we would manage. We left the parking lot at 4400 feet elevation. The first 3.3 miles coursed through old growth forests with occasional glimpses of the mountain. At 5000 feet we started seeing the first snow patches on the side of the trail and at 5500 feet the snow was on the trail with frequent snow travel.


By the time we got to Glacier Basin, the entire ground was covered in snow and we decided to ditch our approach shoes and don our climbing boots. We tossed our shoes in a plastic bag, tied it up, and found a nice tree to hang them from off the trail.


Glacier Basin is a great place to camp and get introduced to the mountain. It is sort of a gateway between the forest and the Interglacier snowfield. We refilled our bottles in a creek and headed up the snow. Still wearing shorts and a t-shirt, the climbing went fast and easy. The camp was around 6200 feet and we had to get to 7500 feet to cross to the Winthrop Glacier across St. Elmo's Pass. One brief stop along the way to reapply sunscreen and we were at the pass. From this vantage point we watched the many guided groups around. The largest and most comical was a group from OSAT that had 24 members. Most of them had brand new gear and looked like they had never walked on snow before.



Another group that had gone up to St. Elmo's for a multi-day instructional course prior to a summit attempt were with us at the pass. Most of them appeared to have some experience but one still had REI tags on his gear. He obviously was struggling and needed the extra days to learn some techniques. After a prolonged rest and lunch we tied in, added some clothing, and headed off across the Winthrop.




The crevasses were small and a trail was well established. Fortunately, the snow was not too mushy and we made good time across the glacier. The heat was getting to us so after crossing the last crevasse we stopped to remove clothing again.


Right before Curtis Ridge, we met a party coming down from the Ridge itself. They had failed to progress due to objective hazards and the difficulty of the route. They made it to the upper rock bands before turning around.





At the edge of the Ridge, before the Carbon Glacier, we found plenty of campsites and areas where tent platforms had been cleared out. We set up camp and scouted the entrance to the Carbon. It seemed straight forward right along the ridge through and icefall and up onto the glacier proper. Back up to our camp we had dinner and watched the constant barrage of rock and ice coming off of Liberty Wall and Willis Wall.

Getting closer to sunset, I watched a large section of cliff come loose on the snow ramp up Liberty Ridge - the exact line we were going to take up to Thumb Rock! The size of the blocks and the number of them made me rethink climbing the route. I was about 75% certain we would still climb but now there was quite a bit of doubt.






It was decided that we would get up at 2 AM and start as early as possible so we could be through the glacier and on the snow ramp by sunrise. The plan started off well but right at 2 AM we heard huge avalanches coming off the walls. By the time we left the activity had ceased so we motored through the glacier as fast as we could.



A team had bivied the night before below the snow ramp so their tent platform was a nice place to rest and rerack for the snow ramp.

We were also able to observe the car sized blocks that had fallen the evening before. With no major activity yet, I proceeded up the ramp. The bergschrund crossing was easy on the left side and after coming out of the blocks I looked up the ramp to see plenty of rockfall coming down towards me. I would take 2-3 steps then look up to see which way I needed to move to avoid the incoming debris. This continued for the first half of the ramp until I could traverse right. I decided to put in pickets into the soft snow but only to catch my body if I got hit by rockfall.



After crossing to the right side the amount of rockfall substantially decreased. The 2 parties below us took heed and crossed sooner with one party crossing right after crossing the bergschrund - smart move. By 10 AM we were all safely at Thumb Rock setting up camp. One final party arrived at 4 PM and thought they were going to die coming up. Between collapsing every snowbridge they crossed and the constant barrage of rocks down the snow ramp, they were very happy to arrive in one piece.




We spent the remainder of the afternoon resting, rehydrating, and refueling ourselves. At 6 PM we went to bed for a midnight start. 11:30 PM came and I couldn't sleep anymore. I don't think it was the constant noise of seracs falling, the banging of the rocks coming down Willis and Liberty, or the excitement of a summit day. I think it's more the fact that I usually can't sleep more than 3-5 hours a night and after an easier day of climbing I was ready to go.


We were the first up and after a breakfast and packing up camp we were on the trail. The first 200' of elevation gain took me an hour. This got me just around the rock formation above Thumb Rock . The slow progress was due to knee deep post-holing. I couldn't believe the snow would be so soft at 2 AM so the slow moving was a bit discouraging. After turning the second corner, we went straight up through the rock band and found the rocks fairly well frozen in place. Above the rock band the snow became firm and the moving went much faster.




After tiring myself out to establish the initial trail, two teams passed us and headed up the route fairly quickly. We remained not too far behind and caught up at the final serac before Liberty Cap. It was just getting light on the upper snowfields. We watched the first two teams climb near vertical ice on the serac and decided to head right for the snow ramp between the large seracs. With my lack of fitness and difficulty with the altitude (O2 sat was 90% at St. Elmo's Pass on my oximeter, 95% at Thumb Rock), I needed something easier.




The last party headed up the serac when we headed right. A nice snow bridge was present across the bergshrund to the final ramp. The sun had been beating down on it for at least an hour now but it seemed pretty solid. I placed my ice axes across the shrund and placed one foot on the bridge. Almost immediately the bridge collapsed. I was staring at a 12 foot by 3 foot section of snow sitting in the bottom of the shrund in front of me.



Back across to the left edge of the schrund where I had scouted an alternative through the edge of the seracs. I had my partner lead through this section even though he had never formally climbed ice before. It was about 60 degrees but required front pointing and tool placements. He moved through the section beautifully and got to clip a couple of v-threads that a prior team had left. Without that pro he would have had a rough time running out this section.




I had all the screws and pickets weren't much of an option here. The ice to the point where he stopped was solid but above his position it was a crust of sundrops over loose, unconsolidated snow but not too sugary as steps were still possible in the shade. I climbed out to the right to the sun line to hopefully get softer snow and better steps but no such luck. It continued to be this crust of ice without possibility of screws or pickets. After a rope length I neared the top of the ramp and could finally start placing screws. I placed 4 screws as I traversed and then the angle started easing up. I belayed Chris up to me and from there we could walk up to the top of Liberty Cap.




As the sun had come up the winds had also started up. By now, the winds were a fairly constant 30-40 mph with gust of 50-60 mph. Liberty Cap was shrouded in clouds when we arrived but after a brief break the clouds disappeared, for the most part, and the views opened up.





We took our pictures and headed off again from 14,114 feet to 13,200 feet. After descending nearly a thousand feet, we were staring at Columbia Crest and the traverse to the Emmons Route.




We had to make a decision and since Chris had never summitted Rainier before, we dropped our packs and headed up to the true summit. The wind, fatigue, and altitude started really getting to me. I needed frequent rests and might have even dozed off a few times but we persisted. I wasn't having any headaches, light-headedness, nausea, or other signs of altitude sickness. Just a lack of fitness and lack of proper acclimatization.


Finally, we arrived at the crater rim. We found a nice spot out of the wind to rest and have a few snacks. Another 10 minutes and we were on the summit. The winds were blowing us around and knocking us off balance so we figured the gusts had to be in the 60-70 mph range. 5 minutes later and we were heading back for our packs.




The progress down was very quick and after getting our packs back together we were on the traverse to the Emmons. Once on the Emmons the winds died down and removed our excess clothing. When you are at 13,000+ feet and looking down to camp at 9,500 feet, it's a long way. We moved slowly due to the mashed potato snow and eventually were bright enough to remove our crampons. Without having all the snow balling on the bottoms, we moved three times as fast and started making some good progress.


We could see the final traverse and ramp to the camp. Only one problem - we didn't see the icefall we had to cross. Remember that OSAT team? They left wands all over the route and even some fixed lines with pickets through the icefall. I wasn't about to trust someone else's fixed gear and especially pickets in such soft snow.


There was a snow bridge across one section of a large serac. I gingerly crawled across it as splayed out as possible and still felt the entire bridge sinking with each inch I progressed.



Once across I did place a picket, hopefully as a directional, before I traversed out onto the face of the serac. At this point I thought crampons would be useful agian. A trail had been made so that I could face into the serac and frontpoint sideways across it. The snow under my heels was sliding away and my toes sunk deeper into the serac. Plunging my tools into the serac was also fairly useless as the snow was too soft to support them. I kept looking below me at the gaping holes and knew I couldn't fall. Some of the gaps between the seracs were 200 feet deep.



When I crossed above the last crevasse, I started downclimbing until I was on fairly low angle terrain again.

My partner followed and we proceeded down the "trail" again. Now finally away from the blocks of ice lodged in the snow all around the trail and on the ramp, I stopped again to remove my crampons. The soft snow was good for something at this point. We were just under 12,000 feet but were able to glissade all the way down the 10,000 feet or approximately the level of Emmons Flats. We walked the last bit into camp and were greeted by Dave the climbing ranger.


He welcomed us with open arms and a bottle of whiskey. It was some of the best whiskey I've had in a long, long time! It was now 9 PM and we had just finished a 21 hour day. Camp was quickly set up and now I was finding out the unleaded gasoline I was using in my XGK II had fouled it up bad enough that only a small yellow flame was possible despite all my tricks. We tried to make dinner but couldn't eat the half cooked pasta. The temps were still warm enough that the ledges cut out for the tent platform were dripping water and we were able to collect 4 L of water in this manner.


Chris pointed out the lightning in the distance after the tent had been set up but I didn't think much of it until the rain started coming down. The lightning and thunder intensified so we re-arranged our camp to put everything we needed to remain dry inside our tent and anything not so important we put under the ledges around the tent. The marble sized hail started coming down and for me that was enough. It was after 10 PM and I was ready for bed.


5 AM came the next morning and we slowly started getting everything re-organized and ready for the trip down to the car.




At 7 AM the sun came around the corner and so everything still damp got placed on rocks and mostly dried before we left. There wasn't much wind and with the sun I opted for shorts and t-shirt again. Leaving camp, I felt great and was moving along quite well. At the top of Interglacier we packed away the rope and left at the same time at 4 skiers/boarders.


Chris chose to glissade down the snowfields but with shorts I chose to walk. 35 minutes later I was back in Glacier Basin. I passed the skiers/boarders as they were putting their skis/boards on their packs and feeling really good. Now it was time to get rid of these heavy mountaineering boots and put some sandals back on.


No such luck. They were gone. We were informed by a party who had camped there that a ranger had been wandering through the woods where we had left our shoes. So it was down the trail in boots. Back at the car I weighed my pack again and was in disbelief when it weighed 74 lbs. I couldn't figure it out until I weighed the rope individually and realized it had picked up quite a bit of water weight and weighed the soggy trash/food from the night before.


At one point a box of pasta opened in the tent and being wet, I didn't want soggy noodles all over everything. I tossed as much as I could out the window and in the morning scooped it up with the snow and threw it in a gallon ziplock bag. The bag was full of water and weighed 9 lbs. So much for going light and fast. Next time I'll suffice without all the little luxury items I brought as well as trimming down my food selections but I got to tell you that the fresh homemade pasta sauce we ate on the first night and the packets of pre-cooked Indian food the second night were worth their weight.


A quick trip to the ranger station to check out and find out where our shoes went was in order before driving to Auburn for a victory beer and meal. Chris had to have salmon being we were visiting the Northwest and so he did. Another stop at the Goodwill store got me some $5 sandals for the flight home and the rest of the trip went without a hitch.


























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Well I was going to skip to the pictures, but started reading and just kept reading; nicely written! Congrats.

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Thanks BirdDog. It was fun writing it and I can sometimes go on and on and on......


Cale, I knew he was up for the challenge and hadn't really expected to have to back track from a collapsed bridge. It was just easier for him to go up than both of us reverse so I could lead up. I'm just glad there were v-threads there for him to clip. If nothing else, it was psychological pro for him. I had to instruct him on how to properly swing the tools as he was going up. He's a strong guy and has been on plenty of steeep snow runs throughout the Sierras and in the Alps.


This was the first time he had been on a "big" mountain with open crevasses, roped travel, and multi-day experiences. Of course he is now hooked and is asking me the next objective!

Edited by Montana_Climber

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indeed - this was totally a great read. congrats on an awesome climb! sounds like you guys made good decisions and climbed in excellent style. well done!

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That makes total sense! Thanks for a great report. My friend and I are probably going to try a guided climb up the Ridge next year. Your report is excellent. If we were more experienced, I think we'd check it out.

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