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[TR] mount rainier - willis wall 6/11/1989


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June 11, 1989


Old French Proverb:

“God helps three kinds of people: Fools, Children and Drunkards”, Berthelin, Pierre Charles (1762)



I enjoy the controversy which often follows postings on this site and I appreciate the links to tales of adventure. On the 25th Anniversary of the event, here is a tale of three days in the lives of four middle-aged, married-with-children guys who decided to attempt Willis Wall. We never were hard-core; just regular folks who like hot showers and cold beer and hate physical discomfort. The climbing was not very difficult, but it was scary.




On the afternoon of June 9, 1989, a Friday, four aging mountaineers from Whatcom County, Washington departed to make an attempt on Willis Wall. The four were Anton Karuza (who talked us into it), 36, a podiatrist; Jeff Steger, 42, a psychologist; Joe Abbott, 47, an attorney and Howard Evans, 54, a University professor. We were not professional climbers and not young. Howard Evans and I met in the first mountaineering course for each of us when he was 45 and I was 38.

Willis Wall, the Nordwand of Mt. Rainier, is a route known for loose boulders, cliffs of frozen mud, frequent rock fall and occasional massive ice avalanches from the 300’ ice cliffs which hang above the climbing routes. Anyone who sees Willis Wall hardly needs to be convinced of its danger. The wall encompasses the avalanche-scarred stretch of Mount Rainier’s north face between Curtis Ridge and Liberty Ridge. It rises from the Carbon Glacier some 4,000 feet to meet ice cliffs spilling from 14,112-foot Liberty Cap, the lowest of the three prominent nobs on the mountain’s broad summit. Chunks of ice and rock frequently careen down the wall in warm weather and scatter debris down its 50-degree sides.

“Despite the objective hazards, the Willis Wall is a popular objective, in

theory if not in practice. To climb Willis Wall and survive seems to elevate

one to “”immortal”” status among Northwest climbers”.

Climbing The Northwest Volcanoes, Jeff Smoot, 2nd Ed.


We thought conditions on the mountain would probably be as ideal as they can ever be. There had been recent snowfall, daytime temperatures at low elevations only rose into the 60’s and we optimists opined that the Wall should be well cemented together and stable. We were probably over-educated and lacking in common sense.

After late lunch and a fight with Friday afternoon traffic through Seattle we were able to leave the White River campground trailhead by 7:00 PM. We moved rapidly and soon reached Boulder Basin (5,000’) where a bivouac with sleeping bags and bivvy sacks was comfortable and uneventful. The large and sometimes aggressive marmots we encountered on previous trips to Liberty Ridge were not out and about.

Anton was our most experienced climber and the one who dared to propose this climb. He and I had climbed Liberty Ridge and Price Glacier (Mt. Shuksan) together. Jeff had climbed steep ice on the North side of Mt. Hood and joined Anton and I on the NE Buttress of Mt. Goode. Howard was a strong outdoorsman with solid experience on the Cascade Volcanoes, including Mt. Rainier, in summer and winter. When asked whether he was interested in joining a Willis Wall climb, there was a long pause before the answer of “why not?” came. He knew what Willis Wall is. Until 1960 the National Park Service had prohibited climbing on the Wall believing it to be too dangerous.

On day two of our trek the weather remained cool and bright as we crossed Curtis Ridge and slowly wound our way up the center of the Carbon Glacier East of Liberty Ridge to nearly 9,000’. We found what we were looking for; a 20-foot wide crevasse running from East to West to protect us from all but the largest avalanche (we hoped) from the Wall. We had all read “Beckey”, and Dee Molenaar’s “Challenge of Rainier”, heard a few additional tales and were well aware of what the Wall could do. A few years before his death I had the pleasure of meeting a fine gentleman, Mr. Pete Schoening . When we talked about the Wall he related that once, in his early climbing years, he and some friends were camped in a similar place on the carbon glacier, waiting to do the Wall the next day. About 10:00 PM they were jolted by a huge icefall coming down the Wall. He said that was enough for them; they couldn’t sleep at all and went home the next morning. However, I had not heard that story when we were on the route.

As we lazed about on our sleeping bags in hot afternoon sunshine, we “scoped out” a solid-looking 45° snow ramp just left of the center of the Wall and concluded that was our starting point to access the Wall from the Carbon Glacier the next morning. At dusk we heard something and noticed a small cloud coming down the right side of the Wall near Liberty Ridge. It was obviously big enough to sweep away anyone in its path but nothing for us to worry about behind our crevasse barrier. We managed a picture or two of the “small” icefall. We were feeling smug about the lack of activity on the left half of the Wall, our intended route.

Sometime after 10:00 PM, in darkness, something broke loose on the left half of the Wall. Thunder brought us half-way out of our sleeping bags and we searched the darkness upslope for any sign of movement toward our new friend; the 20’ wide crevasse. Soon the noise died away and no ice monsters had appeared.

By 3:00 AM some of us were stirring and trying to rouse those who weren’t. By 4:00 AM we were roped up and ready to climb. Temperature was about 9°F and we were hopeful that the Wall would remain quiet.

We angled leftward toward Curtis Ridge and our hoped-for ramp. Alas, as the light improved, we saw that our ramp was gone, smashed by the large icefall a few hours earlier. However, in its place was a pile of broken ice completely filling the bergshrund and covering the place where the ramp had been.

In the early morning twilight we climbed over the ice block pile, then upward rapidly as a four-man rope on frozen snow, needing only crampons and one ice tool as the angle was never very steep, varying from 30° to 40°. We started up toward the crest of Curtis Ridge but soon angled to the right, aiming for the nearest rock cliff which would provide some protection from the objective danger of rock and ice fall.

The morning sun was on the cliffs above and on us before we gained the shelter of a cliff but nothing substantial fell. We rested, then climbed upward through a break in the cliff band to reach what Beckey describes in his Cascade Alpine Guide as a “key ramp”, then followed it right on a traverse. At one point the ramp ended and we were forced downward on water ice interspersed with boulders. Only about one rope length of front pointing was required to pass around a cliff corner (East Rib?) and regain our ramp. The maneuver was one of only two or three where we belayed each other. We continued to gain height, climbing snow or ice chutes through cliff bands and generally moving upward and Westward toward the upper portion of the Wall. At all times we hugged cliffs when we could and moved fast when we could not. During most of the morning, the rock fall was sporadic, just an occasional clatter from small rocks. Then, as we were luckily hugging a rock wall, with no warning, there was an explosion on our scree-covered ledge no more than thirty feet from the nearest climber. The air was filled with rock dust and we were all shaken. However, we were high on the route and there was no thought except “let’s get up this thing and out of here”.

We took a number of breaks through the day but tried to keep them short. Although we carried bivy sacks and sleeping bags we weren’t giving thought to a bivy on the Wall. We wanted this to be our one and only day on this rotten drainage of rock and ice.

Pushing Westerly around a cliff corner on a scree-covered ledge we faced the obvious crux of the battle; a steep drainage coulier above where our ledge ended in a drop-off. The coulier is probably just East of the Central Rib. The upper coulier began some fifteen feet above our heads and appeared to be a narrow, perhaps fifteen-foot wide, “cannonball-alley”. To reach this dubious escape route someone would have to lead fifteen feet of vertical, frozen mud imbedded with small boulders. Everyone agreed Anton would lead the pitch, including Anton. While this conclusion was being reached an interruption occurred; a growing rumble, then a thunderous roar of what we estimated to be two, ten-yard loads of ice and rock, mostly ice, crashing past us down the coulier. We, of course, were pressed against the cliff on our ledge just short of the coulier. Although the sun was on the ice cliffs above we quickly decided it was now or never to tackle the coulier, the only apparent way up. A comment was made that we might have twenty minutes, or perhaps none!! Anton led the mud wall in five minutes or less, front-pointing with two tools. In the icy coulier above he placed one ice screw and belayed the second up. Quick climbing by all of us and we were above the crux and out of the gun barrel for a break on a small shoulder below the snowfield which lies below the summit ice cliffs. For the first time in hours we felt confident we would complete the route and escape it unscathed.

However, the climb was not over and we could not relax. It was late afternoon and we gave no thought to climbing the ice cliff looming above us; instead opting for a leftward traverse toward the top of Curtis Ridge. The traverse turned out to be easy, walking on 30° snow compacted by frequent ice avalanches. We hurried as best as four middle-aged guys with packs can hurry above twelve thousand feet. Now, when we were all very tired, we faced one last obstacle, several hundred feet of steep, near knee-deep, soft snow. After taking inventory of energy levels, Howard, at age 54, took the lead and kicked steps to a shoulder where we could begin a descent down the Emmons Glacier. Howard had previously climbed Mt. Rainier from 6,500’ in one day and always performed well at altitude. I perform less well. As we started down near dusk it had been a 17-hour day following a short night. We came to a flat area on the glacier. I could go no further. I was down and on the ice, barely awake. I heard a voice say “I guess we’re bivvying here; Joe is out”. After I was rolled into my sleeping bag I began to warm up. I could hear Jeff fighting a sputtering stove. Soon I was handed a lukewarm drink.

The next day was a pleasant descent in brilliant sunshine. Leaving St. Elmo Pass we met four strapping fellows; climbers know the type; six-feet two, slender, twenty-somethings; small high-tech packs. They looked like professionals. We looked like their fathers, or worse. After pleasantries they asked “are you the guys who signed out for Willis Wall?” Response: “Yes”. Then, “did you do the route?” Response: “Yes”. Then “ALL RIGHT!!!” Followed by high-fives all around. The twenty-somethings were headed for Liberty Ridge and bouyed by the knowledge that they could look forward to another thirty or forty years of climbing!

When Pete Schoening saw our Willis Wall photos on a wall in my office he said “did you climb Willis Wall?” When I answered in the affirmative he began shouting “hard core, you are hard core!” I am proud to have an autographed copy of K2 The Savage Mountain by Houston and Bates where Pete wrote:

“Joe – Best Wishes on your future climbing – And stay off Willis Wall – OK?”

/s/ Pete Schoening




My Willis Wall companions and I are aging and feeling our injuries and limitations but we still hike, climb and share beer back at the trailheads. Life is good. The climbs are mostly scrambles. Howard is the recipient of a letter from then Park Superintendent Neal Guse stating (in response to my inquiry about a fellow his age climbing the Wall) that after sending my letter to various climbing rangers and those who have worked in the park for many years, although it is not certain, it is “very likely that Howard Evans is the oldest climber”. At age 78 I have little doubt that he could still kick steps for several hundred feet up a snow slope above 12,000’.

In 34 years of climbing I climbed many routes and mountains requiring a higher level of climbing ability. I also encountered and survived several life-threatening weather situations, but no climb in perfect weather and conditions ever took more out of me than Willis Wall.


Joe Abbott










Tacoma News Tribune

February 27, 2001

Mount Rainier’s Willis Wall – a 4,000-foot mountain face frequently bombarded by

avalanches and menaced by a sinister overhanging cliff – isn’t such a popular hangout



No brave soul has attempted any of Willis Wall’s five known routes in at least 10 years,

maybe longer, Mount Rainier rangers say. While climbers on other parts of the mountain

cope with crowds and bottlenecks, Willis Wall’s reputation as the most dangerous place

on the peak has helped the forbidding face stand alone and aloof.



Edited by jca
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Ok kids, I think the OP is possibly an older climber who probably experienced some problems posting his TR and I for one would like to see it. So unless one of you has a TR to post about climbing Willis Wall on vintage gear, please be nice so he posts it when it's ironed out. Thanks!


jca - if you want some help posting a Trip Report, send Jon or Olyclimber a Private Message.

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So while we are waiting for JCA to post his adventure on the Willis I'll provide some entertainment for you all as I have been on the Willis. Though unsuccessful it was an adventure.


One early March my friend Brent and I flew into Sea-Tac with all the toys including skis. The gal at the rental car counter said there was no way our skis would fit in the compact car were renting and that we should rent a full sized car. Brent seeing her coifed nails talked her up while talking her out of the need for a bigger car. In the end they gave us a bigger car cause they were out of compacts so she was really trying to up sell us to cover their overages.


Next stop REI to get some fuel. Though all we needed was a quart all they had was a gallon of white gas so we bought that. The extra fuel will come in handy later.


We drove on up to Carbon River and planned to start our hike from there. Seems there was a small problem. A wash out closed the road. Damn I guess we will walk the road. Hmm next problem, nobody at the Ranger Station. That is odd for a Saturday. I guess we will skip the permit. The lack of permit will cause some issues.


The walk in was fine and after a couple of hours we reached Ipsut Creek and got on the trail. We hiked in our shoes until Dick Creek when we finally hit some snow. After camping for night we ditch our shoes, put on boots, and headed up to gain Curtis Ridge and dropped down onto the Carbon. The day turned out to be longer than we thought when finally reached the base of Willis Wall.


Some might think pitching a tent near the base would be fool hardy. But fortunately the winter before I had a chance to chat with Jim Wickwire who gave some good thoughts on the wall. As such we chose to climb the left side which is the "least" hazardous.


The next morning we awoke early but both Brent and I were a bit knackered (our combined ages are over 100). The wind was blowing and well we decided to take a rest day. Though a rest day we went up and scouted out a route through bergshrund which was wise because it was a bit complex and doing it in the dark even with headlamps would be tricky. After our excursion we headed back to camp.


Given we had plenty of rest we got up early and headed up. We easily crossed the bergshrund and started up the wall proper. Our first obstacle was a dead vertical 60 foot ice steep. I took off my pack and started up. Given we had three screws it going to be a fun lead. After clearing the top I placed a picket and hauled our packs up. Brent then came up. At this point we were warmed up and ready for the next bit. A long 1000 foot plus snow/ice chute that was around 45-50 degrees. We simu-climbed the chute placing pickets and screws. In a few places there was an out crop or two for a rest and a place to collect gear. I did much of the leading.


After another 500 feet or so, around 11,5k we are up into the rock bands leading into the main buttress. Due to the low amount of snow the buttress was a lot of rock. Fred said there should be 100 feet of rock climbing. Damned if I ever found that and everything was loose.


Though we brought a few pins and rock gear hopes of finding a sane way through was looking slim. Though I was up for doing a recce without my pack we had noticed a nice contrail going over the summit. Given that a few years before Brent and I plus another friend spent the night near the summit in horrendous winds that was in June this was March. Valor being the better part of wisdom we decided to bail.


We down climbed the snow/ice chute. Built a V-thread and rapped off the step. After traversing the shurd again we were finally back on the Carbon. It was around 2pm. While happy to be off the wall we still needed to get off the Carbon. We decide to go down the eastern side of the glacier thinking it would be faster/easier. Brent started off playing crevasse poodle. And poodle did he play as did I. The cracks while small had weak bridges and were really hard to see. Brent fell into one up to his arms. He got out and took a few steps and went into another. Then it was my turn. At one point we both went to cracks at the same time. Fortunately not the same one. It was a bit disconcerting crawling out of a crack not to see your partner. After recomposing ourselves we just started laughing at the situation and taking bets on who would fall into the most cracks. I can not remember who won.


Finally around 4pm we reached the edge of Carbon and were back on the ridge where we found a great bivy spot. As we were setting up the tent the wall cut lose. A huge part of the ice cliff calved off. The whole basin filled with spindrift. I got a few pictures (would post but have no idea where they are). Brent and I looked at each with blank faces and laughed.


Epilogue : when we got back to our car the NPS boys were waiting for us. Seemed they got a bit concerned about an abandoned rental car. Gaitor was not around, though they called him to see if had issued an over the phone permit. He knew we were talking about coming up but did not issue a permit. He suggested talking to another mutual NPS friend who was in another park. They knew nothing of our plans. It was all humorous to us but not to the rangers. We explained that there was no one at Carbon River to issue permits so we went in anyways. They finally said okay and let us go on our way.


Oh and that extra white gas - we poured that into the rental car and turned it back in.


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Thanks for posting the report, Joe. Crazy story and a great read. Any pictures?


Also a good story as well ScaredSilly -- I think you made the right choice on bailing.


For pedestrian climbers like myself, it boggles the mind that people have even attempted, let alone successfully climbed the Willis Wall.

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Great TR, JCA. Some areas you describe I remember, and others we somehow avoided/missed.


Here's a pic of the 100-200' ice cliff at the top. It sounds like JCA's party went left to avoid it. We went right at the Traverse of Angels.




Edit to add: Here's the approximate location of the image above in the previous pic in this thread.



Edited by CascadeClimber
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