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Rich Mc

[TR] Mt Rainier - Disappointment Cleaver 7/21/2013

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Trip: Mt Rainier - Disappointment Cleaver


Date: 7/21/2013


Trip Report:

Summiting Mt. Rainier is no easy task. Then again, summiting any mountain is no easy task for that matter. Just ask anyone who has toiled with sleep deprived jaunts up steep, icy and slushy terrain, fighting extreme weather, all the while powered by hard candy and freeze-dried meals. You can end up feeling invincible or defeated just as quickly as a cloud system moves in. One minute, you’re Leo DiCaprio on the stern of that boat, the next you’re Steve Bartman at a Cubs game! It can be cruel.


I was fortunate enough to share my latest climbing experience with Mark and Erik, two friends who share my zest for this grueling sport. Having summited it before, Erik and I knew it would be no easy feat. Getting Mark to buy in took some convincing, as this was much different from the smaller peaks we had climbed previously. However, after repeatedly assuring him that it was not that technical of a climb, he was ready to make the leap and we were happy to have him up with us.


This time, we were climbing in support of the Wounded Warrior Project. We purchased a flag to fly on the summit, soliciting donations from friends and family. This extra bit of motivation kept us hungry to reach the top, more so than just climbing for our own personal goals.


We set out from the aptly-named Paradise Visitor’s Center parking lot (elev: 5,400 ft) on a warm Friday evening, bound for Camp Muir (elev: 10,100 ft), the staging camp on the southern face of Mt. Rainier. After slogging our heavy packs up the eponymous Muir Snowfield, we arrived four hours, 45 minutes later, ready for sleep and shorter of breath. We quickly found shelter inside the surprisingly vacant climber’s hut in lieu of pitching tents on the snowfield proper, like the masses of our insane climbing brethren. We slept off the fatigue of the 4,700 ft elevation gain and let the anxiousness of the next’s day’s events sink in.


Upon awaking the next morning to the summoning alpenglow peeking through the blurry cabin windows, I arose to take pictures of the sun casting orange shadows on the massive glaciers of the tallest volcano in the Cascade Range. Not a creature was stirring, not even a marmot! I let the guys sleep while I took pictures and video of the best view from a mountain these eyes have ever seen. Knowing that we were roughly 24 hours away from being on that summit was making me antsy. The view of the other three peaks that make up “the Cascade Diamond” (Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens) was purely jaw-dropping. It cannot be expressed by even the most extensive or elaborate vocabulary. Mt. Jefferson, to the far south, was also visible from hundreds of miles away. Staring at all of these snow-covered rocks reassured me that I was alive. Breathing the thinner air reminded me that I was mortal. I knew we would have a great time climbing Rainier in mere hours. The mental prep was done. The physical conditioning was done. The day had come to put them both to the test.

We made all the provisional preparations we needed throughout the day, melting silt-encrusted snow and diligently filtering it into our Nalgene bottles to stay hydrated. As the day progressed and exhausted climbers returned from their own summit treks, we picked (no pun intended) their brains on the best routes, the climbing conditions and any potential pitfalls we should avoid. Our plan was hatching to depart earlier based upon the commonality we kept hearing: there were a large number of climbers making summit attempts. Witnessing all the expensive alpine tents that blemished the Cowlitz Glacier like acne on a teenage chess champion’s face, we deduced that leaving earlier than the planned midnight departure was an absolute must. We opted for 10 pm. As that hour approached, and my partners couldn’t stand the anxiety anymore, that time became 9:25 pm.


So here we were, on a surprisingly warm Saturday night, stepping onto a trail that would lead up to the second highest point in the USA, while most of the USA was probably getting dolled up for a night of drinking, socializing and maybe getting lucky. Our goal was the same, except our drink was water, our socializing was with goosedown-clad strangers and our version of getting lucky would probably take a lot longer and require way more effort!


We roped up and started our ascent, hitting the Cathedral Rocks in no time, maneuvering over them with the full moon providing the light that Mark’s headlamp would not. Spare batteries always seem to be something we overlook. My first attempt at summiting this mountain was thwarted by dead batteries, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a bad omen about the “Rainier Rookie’s” inability to see where he was stepping. We let him lead us though, since the moon was beaming and it was fairly light out. The blend of the sun going down to the west and the full moon hovering in the east provided some guidance.


We approached the Ingraham Flats and met our first crevasse crossing. Erik and I knew that Mark was apprehensive about crevasses, so we switched the lead and showed him that it wasn’t that big of a deal. A little further up the trail, we encountered our first bridge crossing, comprised of an aluminum ladder with a wooden plank on top. Mark’s face said it all: What the fuck have you guys gotten me into? Using proper anchor techniques, we dug in to make sure none of us would perish if we fell into the gaping and bottomless chasm. Not a problem. We foraged ahead, feeling confident in what we’d already crossed and hoping there wouldn’t be too many more of those crossings. What we would face later made those crevasses seem like stepping over a mud puddle.


As we climbed higher and higher, past The Flats and through the rocky Disappointment Cleaver, we could see the daisy chain of headlamps on the glacier behind us. It was incredible! The Ingraham Glacier looked more like Fremont Street in Las Vegas! As we got up to about 12,500 ft, we hit a wall: an ice wall…standing 40 ft high at a 45 degree pitch. This wall had two fixed line ropes that we had to use to get up, something that none of us expected or even prepared for. We didn’t hesitate. Erik, the boy scout among us, instructed us along the way on how to clip in and get up the wall. It was quite harrowing to say the least, but we all three made it…only to be greeted at the top by another fixed line spanning a chunk of ground surrounded by two very deep crevasses. A virtual snow island that we had to deftly negotiate to reconnect with the flagged trail.


At this point, we realized that we were the first team up there, climbing alone. We had left so early that there was nobody ahead of us to guide the way or show us the path to take. It happens like that sometimes. Very rarely, but it happens. Once we overcame what we just did and were back on solid ground, we proceeded further up the trail to the Emmons shoulder, but not all the way to the Emmons/Winthrop route. It was here that our dreams of reaching the summit stopped cold. Erik stepped across a very weak and corniced snow bridge and his foot went through!


He quickly pulled it out and made it to the other side, but warned us not to come over. We decided then and there that our journey was through.

There was no reason to risk life and limb 1,000 feet from the summit. So we all came to the consensus that we could go no further. That consensus did not take long to reach either. There would be no flag flying. The summit was lost.


I sunk my ice axe into the crusty snow and to my horror it went all the way through the snow. Not good! I pulled it out, stepped back farther from the cornice and realized what it was we were standing on. We had to get Erik back over and we had to do it fast. Mark and I anchored our axes on firmer ground and dug in, while Erik crossed the now-compromised snow bridge. Once he made it back, we looked at each other and knew we had to double back and get down before the throngs of climbers reached that ice wall. We turned and headed back down the path we came from.


As we came back down to the ice wall, it was much akin to the Hillary Step on Mt. Everest; a total bottleneck of idle climbers, tired, weary and impatient. The trail of headlamps we previously had seen below had now caught up to us, looking more like a swarm of fireflies. We knew that if we didn’t get down quickly, we’d probably be waiting for a while. And we did. We were lucky to make it back down without a long interruption and the long journey down began.


Along the way, we felt it was our duty to inform everyone along the way of the peril we encountered. Some heeded our warning. Some cavalierly pressed on. As we hit the Cleaver again, we stopped to watch the sunrise. It was bittersweet, because we wanted to see that sunrise from the summit. But a sunrise from anywhere on a mountain is better than a sunrise any other place on earth. We soaked it in and proceeded to march down the mountain, stopping every so often to gaze at the huge open cracks in the earth. Again, words and pictures cannot describe this awesome natural spectacle. As we made our way down to the Flats, we heard a loud rumble. We looked over and saw an avalanche of snow and rock tumble down the north face of Little Tahoma, a large peak that protrudes from the east side of the mountain. From as far away as we were, it looked like it was happening in slow motion. We knew we had to get down before that sun started melting the snow.


We made our way back down to Camp Muir about 6:30 a.m. For us, returning unscathed was a success. Seeing what we had seen and being where we had been was quite the feat, even if we didn’t get to the top. In our minds and in our hearts, we knew we did the right thing. And we’ve lived to climb another day. We’ll be back. It might take some time, but we’ll be back.


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Did your group stay in the Muir Shelter on July 19th, 2013 prior to your summit attempt? After reading your TR, I may have encountered you and your friends. I stayed in the hut for two nights. Although my trip leader warned me that he probably wouldn't be able to make the climb (illness), I flew into Seattle anyway hoping to "hook up" with another team. After reaching Muir, the news spread like wildfire that the "route was out" eliminating any chance of capturing my 47th state HP. I have a profile on SummitPost.









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I was also on the mountain during this time. My team and I made the summit at around 10am on July 22. While conditions weren't the best, I didn't think the route was "out". A crumbly-cleaver makes it that much more interesting lol


What slowed our group down was the guided group that had to rap down the fresh icefall just above the cleaver. I think I slept for an hour before it was our turn to continue.



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we climbed kautz that weekend and came down the DC. lets just say I was a much bigger fan of the kautz than the DC. At least on Sunday afternoon the 'wall' or whatever was pretty chill to negotiate but we did see the remaining team behind us take about an hour to do it. With 'some' experience climbing it took about 5 minutes but for those not use to such situation I guess it was a real impediment.


it was a gorgeous weekend for sure, great climbing conditions.

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