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[TR] Mount Rainier - Liberty Ridge 6/1/2014

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Trip: Mount Rainier - Liberty Ridge


Date: 6/1/2014


Trip Report:

With the recent disaster that occurred on Liberty Ridge I was reluctant to post this Trip report. However with no recent TR’s and plenty of people asking me about route conditions and beta here it is. As I think back on the trip it was a good trip yet a sad trip. A trip I will never forgot as we watched the aftermath search of the horrible incident that took the lives 6 other climbers.


Several months ago my friend Brett and I conjured up a plan to climb Mount Rainier’s classic line, Liberty Ridge. We convinced Kirt to come with us which wasn’t hard and decided to just go when the route and weather were good. With high winds and possibility of snow over Memorial weekend we anxiously waited for things to improve. The forecast looked good for the next weekend so we finalized the trip and started packing. The road into White River campground was supposed to open mid-week but when we arrived on Thursday afternoon it was still closed. We were told it would open at 8am in the morning, but we wanted to get an early start to avoid the heat and post holing in the soft snow. So we opted to ride our bikes the 5 miles from the ranger station to the campground.


Friday we were hiking but a little after 6am. The trail was great and free of snow up to about the 4,800 foot line. However there was a good boot pack on the snow and it was crunchy at that time in the morning. We made the long plod up to St. Elmo’s pass were we stopped to rope up for the glacier crossing. After dropping down onto the Winthrop Glacier we took a direct line more or less across the glacier staying with the contour. It was pretty well filled in and navigation wasn’t an issue. After crossing the lower Curtis Ridge we made camp at 7,400 ft overlooking the Carbon glacier and the entire north face of Rainier. Spent the afternoon drying gear, napping or just hanging out in the tent to avoid the sun.


Saturday was going to be a short day, just moving camp to Thumb rock. However we again left early in order to avoid the heat and soft snow. As we were crossing the Carbon in the early morning we could see a team of 2 and a team of 3 leaving Thumb rock camp just after 6am heading up the ridge. The Carbon Glacier had a well established boot track and the going was easy. We opted to cross the bergshrund early and ascend up the right side of the toe to reach the lower ridge. We thought about taking the Carbon Glacier all the way up to the natural fall line from Thumb rock and then taking that up, but we were unsure if the bergshrund could be crossed. As it turned out several other teams later in the day took that route and said it was pretty good. Once on the lower ridge we unroped and headed up. The lower ridge up to thumb rock was in good shape and the route switched between the right and left sides of the ridge a couple times. We only had 1 steep rock section that was about a 8 foot vertical step. We arrived at Thumb rock around 9am to find a couple of nice tent spots. Spent some time improving one of them and setting up camp.


About this time a helicopter flew in and started searching the upper Carbon Glacier where it meets the Willis Wall. Unfortunately as it turned out the 2nd worst disaster on Rainier was in the process of unfolding. There are still many unknowns in the entire incident and unfortunately they will probably be that way. Everyone wants to know what went wrong, what happened, but sometimes stuff just happens. It was a sobering afternoon as we watched both the small park helicopter and the large Chinook helicopter search the Willis Wall, and debris field at the base. We could see man made objects such as tents, sleeping bags or such being blown around in the rotor wash of the helicopter down on the Carbon. My sincere condolences go out to the families of the six who were lost as well as the AAI guiding community as a whole. Accidents happen, but they are never easy to understand or recover from.


We rose at midnight from the tent and begin the cold tasks of breaking camp and packing. The weather was clear and the lights from Seattle twinkled way down in the valley. We began our ascent unroped about 1:15am. The trail was well broken in and the steps were large and frozen solid making travel very easy and fast. The route made an immediate left out of thumb rock then climbed back to the right to gain the ridge above. From there it mostly stayed on the ridge crest or to the right. Just below the Black Pyramid it veered left and then up a short vertical step of rock before again gaining the ridge crest. At the Black Pyramid we were forced out left onto the face. The route usually stays fairly close to the edge of the pyramid, however we found solid alpine ice. There was a very faint track that traversed way out left and well on the upper face of the Willis wall. The conditions here were 2-6 inches of snow over hard alpine ice. Sometimes the snow was soft and powdery and other times it was hard and windblown. The consequences of a fall here are huge and so we decided to rope up and put in some protections. I led out and we simul-climbed the next 500 feet or so. I put in an ice screw every 100ish feet. The climbing itself wasn’t hard, but it was engaging and just steep enough to keep you on your toes. The higher we went to the more snow we found over ice. The last screw I put in, I had to dig down about 16 inches through snow to find the ice. As the angle eased up and the snow became more solid we arrived shortly to the more level terrain of the Liberty Camp Glacier. The sun peaked over the horizon and enveloped the us with its warm rays. After a short break we continued on towards the upper bergshrund and the last obstacle which usually includes a short section of ice climbing. The route however took a right turn and headed up a short snow gully that was about 45 degrees for 1 rope length. It was easy going and it deposited us above the bergshrund and on the upper glacier. I was a little disappointed about not having any ice section to climb but I guess that changes as the season changes. After a short snow slog we were standing on Liberty Cap by 6:45am. With plenty of time left and a beautiful windless day we opted to traverse over and climb up the Columbia Crest. After a few summit photos we headed down the Emmons/Winthrop Glacier towards camp Schurman. We passed Schurman about noon and quickly continued down towards Glacier Basin. It was hot out on the snow and without the slightest breeze to cool us down, all we could think about was descending to the shade. Reaching the trail we pounded out the 3 miles back to the campground in a quick hour. After retrieving our bikes we had stashed we enjoyed the breeze of the 5 mile downhill ride back to the White River Ranger station and our car. We arrived back at the car at 2:45pm making for a 13 1/2 hour day from camp.


I bade farewell to Kirt and Brett as they headed back to Spokane. I drove around the mountain to Paradise to meet up with my uncle and father-in-law for a trip of the Disappointment Cleaver. We had a fairly relaxed itinerary with day 1 to Muir, day 2 to Ingraham Flats, day 3 summit, and day 4 descent. But with a long summit day of Liberty Ridge on Sunday the slog up to Muir on Monday was a long one. We had a great trip and I enjoyed the summit of Rainier for the 2nd time in 3 days making for a fun week on the mountain.


Riding our bikes on the White River Road from the White River Ranger station to the trailhead.



Crossing the Winthrop Glacier with Curtis Ridge in the background.



A close up of the upper section of Liberty Ridge showing the current conditions. Note the several large sections of shiny ice. The snow all around that is just a few inches of snow on the same hard ice.



Crossing the Carbon Glacier near the toe of Liberty Ridge. Note the well broken in boot path on the right side of the photo.



Ascending the lower slopes of Liberty Ridge in route to Thumb Rock.



The Chinook helicopter over Willis Wall searching for the missing climbers.



Sunrise high on Liberty ridge. The only downside to leaving Thumb Rock at 1:15am is that all the fun engaging climbing is over before sunrise. Note to self, leave later next time!



Brett excited about the warmth of sunrise and the awesome climbing of Liberty Ridge.



Me on the summit of Rainier (Columbia Crest) with Mt. Adams in the background, after climbing Liberty Ridge.



Gear Notes:

Normal glacier gear

30m rope

6 screws (used them all for simul-climbing the ice near the Black Pyramid.


Approach Notes:

Good boot pack to follow. Go early to avoid the heat and soft snow of the afternoon.

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Marlin, thanks for sharing the story about your week on Rainier. I was wondering how it went.


Glad it all went well.



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Thanks for an awesome trip report. Despite the tragedy, it looks like you had a great climb on the route - and it looks like it's in great condition.

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