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[TR] Mount Rainier - Curtis Ridge 6/14/2014


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Trip: Mount Rainier - Curtis Ridge


Date: 6/14/2014


Trip Report:

Warning, this write up is a bit long. If all you are looking for are pictures then just scroll down to the bottom of my post.


So I was driving home from back to back summits of Rainier by Liberty Ridge and the DC. While on the way back to Spokane, I called my climbing partner Joe to tell him about the trip (he had school and couldn’t make it). While in conversation he suggested doing a climb the following week since he was just finishing up school. After a little bit more discussion it was decided to go back to Rainier and climb Curtis Ridge. Due to my work schedule we only had a 3 day window. The weather looked bad for Thursday and Friday, but they were calling for a clear day on Saturday (our planned summit day). So with high hopes and decided to at least give it a try.


Thursday I drove over to Joe’s as soon as I got off work at 8am. By 2pm we had registered for our climb and set off from the White River Campground. The weather was actually pretty decent, and we even got a glimpse of the mountain on the drive over Chinook Pass. After a leisurely hike up to St. Elmo’s camp we set up camp. No sooner did we have the tent set up than the clouds, wind, and sleet came. It was a windy hour melting water and doing dinner.


The weather report was predicting snow for the night, and the next morning we weren’t disappointed. There was about an inch of white soggy stuff over everything. We rose at 7am and were hiking by 8:30am. The route over the Winthrop was still pretty straight forward with little crevasse issues. Once we reached the lower Curtis we turned off the old boot pack and headed up. By this time the weather was pretty bad. Visibility was anywhere from decent to whiteout, and winds gusts occasionally reached 45mph. The going slowed as the snow turned deeper and wetter. We switched off breaking trail several times especially above 9000 ft where the post holing was knee deep. The normal high camp for Curtis Ridge is near the Gendarme. With horrible weather and only hope that it would improve tomorrow, we didn’t want to do the rappel and commit ourselves to the route. After we reached the rappel spot we started back tracking, looking for a spot to pitch the tent. After a short search we found one of the best spots I have ever seen. It was a good sized snow ledge tucked down in a snow/rock cave. We had to dig the floor down a little so it was tall enough for the tent, but once we finished we were completely out of the elements. Quite satisfied with our site we set to melting snow and wishing the weather would clear. After melting several liters of water Joe noticed that there were multiple things in his water that were moving on there own! After a quick check we realized all the water had living organisms in it. Since we needed water and didn’t want to waste any fuel we opted to just boil everything we had already melted in order to kill whatever it was. This process added more time to an already long cold process. We were happy to crawl into our cozy sleeping bags with a warm dinner. Somehow I had enough service on my Iphone to check the weather forecast. It was still calling for a clear day in the morning and we settled down in hopes it would be right.


Alarms went off at 2am and we crawled out of the tent to check the weather. All I remember was Joe saying that he could see the moon and several stars. That was enough for me and we quickly went about breaking camp and forcing down food. We left camp just after 3am and followed our footsteps back to the rappel point. We had brought a 30m rope to save weight so we also had along a 100 feet of static 5mm cord. We rigged our rappel and headed down in the darkness. Unfortunately we had a small issue with pulling the line and I had to ascend about 15 feet to get things unstuck. From there on it was game time, and we were excited to actually be on the route under clear skies and cold temperatures. We stuck to the ridge crest then traversed under some cliffs on the Winthrop side. Then back across the ridge and along the Carbon side of the ridge. Just before we reached the Gendarme we passed a nice flat spot tucked up next to the rock on the Winthrop side where high camp usually is. We passed the Gendarme just as the soon rose. With the rising sun we could see the could level down around 9000 ft but clear skies everywhere above. Passed the Gendarme we stuck to the ridge crest and ended up doing 1 more short 30 ft rappel to get off one of the rock fins. On breaks we would search the upper face trying to see where the route would go. It was like trying to memorize a maze from above before you walk through it....which snowfield connect by which rock bands.


We reached the base of the 1st cliff band and looked up at what we thought was the route. It didn’t look like a class 3/4 scramble so we continued traversing for another couple hundred feet. We found an easy snow slope turn up around the end of the cliff band. Then we traversed back the other direction. We found a small rock scramble of 3/4 class and gained another snowfield. At this point we assumed we were above the 1st cliff band and started traversing the snow slope. Things didn’t seem to fit and we couldn’t make what we saw mesh with our metal image from the Gendarme or the picture topos we brought. We continued on this snow slope traversing right until it ran out on a ice/rock nose. Joe led around this nose and up onto the snow above. After he belayed me up we stopped to try and figure things out. After much discussion we figured we were way too far right and officially off route. We searched for a way up but with no luck. We looked at going right and trying to run around the end of a cliff, but that just led to the Willis Wall. It was 9am by this time and we decided that if we hadn’t figured things out in an hour we needed to bail. At this point we turned around and headed back the way we had come. From this high point we could see a snow ledge that we had missed that went off towards the climber’s left and stopped at the cliff band. Hoping this was the “hidden passage” we needed, I led the reverse pitch around the nose and back to the snowfield. After a traverse of the snow ledge it ended at the rock band with what looked like an easy 15 feet of exposed climbing to a snowfield above. Sweet! Finally on route and going somewhere! It was about this time that I started to believe we really were going to climb this big route.


This snowfield was more like a wide gully and Joe took the lead kicking steps. Near the top at a constriction we switched, and I finished breaking trail up to the 2nd cliff band. From here it was a simple traverse to the right a couple hundred feet to a steep snow slope that turned to a rock scramble. We broke the rope out of the pack again and set a belay. I led up to the end of the rope, then we simul-climbed through the rocks to the upper snow field. It was Joe’s turn to break trail, and he made quick work of this upper snowfield. We traversed left scrambled over some rocks and took a quick break right on the ridge crest looking down to the Winthrop. From here I broke trail as we headed up a snow gully. We made a short exposed rock scramble left to another snow slope and up again. At the base of a 15 foot snow covered ice step we stopped to get the rope out and belay up. Joe took the lead and got in a good piton. Just as we was about to pull over the lip something slipped and he took a 20 foot fall down to the soft snow below. Unhurt he quickly dusted himself off and sent the short step with ease. This step led us into a right trending snow gully. I took over the step kicking and continued up to where the angle increased to 60+. A fall here would land somebody all the way down in the gaping crevasses of the Winthrop. So after a short simul-climb we were above this and finally home free. It felt so good to be above the last of the steep snow/rock.


At 12,500 ft and finally above the maze we took a break before starting the plod to the summit. After a 30 minute stop to melt a couple liters of water we topped out at 5pm in clear but windy skies. We traversed across the upper slopes of the Emmons/Winthrop looking for the decent trail. Unfortunately with all the recent snow and no wands it was useless exercise. So down we went making our own path. We ended up going way to the east to avoid a couple of large crevasses. Then traversing back west about 12,500 ft we found the boot pack. From that point on the mental strain started to wain as we followed this down to Camp Schurman. The upper slopes were quite icy and 16+ hour day was taking its toll. Down on the Inner Glacier we entered the clouds and drizzle. We took a quick stop near Glacier Basin to drink our beverages we had hidden on the way up. Then it was headlamp time and pounding out the miles to the car. We finally reached the trailhead at 10:30pm making for a 18.5 hour summit day.





Our camp on St. Elmo's Pass on Thursday afternoon in the clouds.




Friday morning with fresh snow coating everything. In the background Curtis Ridge played hide and seek with us in the clouds.




Joe ascending the lower slopes of Curtis Ridge with clouds hanging low in the background.




Joe melting water at our awesome bivy site. It was a nice snow platform in a snow/rock cave a few hundred feet before the rappel point on Curtis Ridge.




Early morning sunrise splashing colors down on the Winthrop Glacier with camp Schurman in the center at the point of Steamboat Prow.




Joe passing the Gendarme on the Winthrop side. The sea of clouds covers everything down low making islands in out of the mountain tops.




Joe climbing Curtis Ridge shortly after sunrise. The prominent rock feature just behind him is the Gendarme.




Joe ascending snow slopes as we start the maze of snow slopes and rock bands. Curtis Ridge is in the background with the Gendarme and various other fins of rock.




Joe traversing across the hidden snow ramp/ledge that we missed. We first went around the nose of rock/ice that is to the right of Joe and 150 yards behind him.




Ascending the upper snowfield towards the exit gully. The upper cliff bands of Curtis Ridge towering overhead.




Joe climbing the steep snow gully that leads to the top of the technical section of Curtis Ridge.




Joe giving the thumbs up after climbing Curtis Ridge and descending the Emmons Glacier.




A photo of the upper section of Curtis Ridge. The thin blue line is the route we took (minus the detour). The red line shows where we got a little turned around and went off route.


Gear Notes:

2 pickets, 2 ice screws, 4 nuts, 4 cams, 4 pins, 2 tri-cams. Used an assortment of everything except for the ice screws and tri-cams. Cams, pins, and nuts seemed to be fine for rock pro and there wasn't enough ice for any screws.

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Very cool. John Frieh declared this the best route on Rainier in the thread following a recent TR from Ptarmigan Ridge. That, together with your excellent report, and I'm no longer wondering what to do next on the Big R. Thanks.

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I think what may have gotten you off route was the fact that you traversed way around to the right then back left at the foot of the first rock band to get past a short but rotten rock step (pink in your picture). If you look at the picture in Fred's book (p123) you went around the buttress where the label "free variation".


Just to right of the "Open Book" label is we found a rotten but climbable snow/ice step. That brings one up further along the shelf, then one traverses perhaps another 100/150 feet or so. At that point one starts looking left for the escape (about where the arrow is located). This description is what we wrote for Gaiter in his book and is not the Wickwire variation which is further up and to the right and what we were originally aiming to reach.


That said I remember my partner finding the escape ledge and coming up and seeing the first snow field in front of us and knowing where we were and that it would go.


Amazing to see so many sun cups - the snow is low.



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I wanted to add a few photos of Marlin since he does such an unrelenting job documenting our climbs. He selflessly has his camera out when I'm focused on something else and grabs some great shots on route because of it. A couple will be framed up on the wall from this trip for sure. Every night he writes notes in a small journal of the days events for future beta for himself and others while I've already closed my eyes to rest.


Mthorman is the Energizer Bunny!




Preparing for our day up to Curtis Ridge




From the rappel point on Curtis Ridge. The wind was ripping and visibility nil.



Stuck rope at the rap point. Snap!



On the ridge exited about the weather window we just nailed.



Some easy scrambling with the upper ridge in our face.



In the final exit gully. Steep snow!



Looking back with the Winthrop Glacier below.

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It's fun to watch you work Marlin.


JP, I am familiar with this "energizer bunny". Spent some time chasing him down the hill after our Eldorado climb last year, trying, unsuccessfully, to keep up...


Nice work you two.



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I think what may have gotten you off route was the fact that you traversed way around to the right then back left at the foot of the first rock band to get past a short but rotten rock step (pink in your picture). If you look at the picture in Fred's book (p123) you went around the buttress where the label "free variation".


Yea I agree with you. We were confused at first because we thought we were above the 1st cliff band when we weren't. That said we did look long and hard at the "pink" line in my photo overlay. However it looked to be multiple feet of 5th class moves on rotten rock and we thought the rock band was supposed to be 3rd/4th class rock.


After we back tracked and found the ledge that ended in 15 feet of easy class 3 we knew exactly where we were. Oh well that is all part of climbing a route! I am sure with more years of experience, route finding will become easier as well.

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DPS a couple observations, the snow is going. I think freezing levels are going back up this week. The step in pink that they went around we were able to climb directly - though it was rotten snow and ice. Going around it adds time. The snow on the ramp is mostly sun cupped and many other areas. Thus my observation is that the snow fields will get icy but the rocks steps more difficult. There is the step down low but also several up high in the exit gully. The tops of those were like frozen kitty litter when did them. Sans snow or ice, though short they could be really interesting.

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Can you comment on how much longer Curtis Ridge might be in shape, assuming the cooler weather we have been experiencing persists?


Hmm...well I am seeing freezing levels in the 11,000 and 12,000 foot range. That is way too high in my opinion. From what I understand the problem with warmer weather in later season is the rockfall. The route becomes a shooting gallery. We saw a lot of rocks on the snowfields some as big as small boulders. Also the "rock climbing" sections are on mostly frozen together rock, so if the temps are warm it could be loose and dangerous. The only reason we attempted it was because the 2 days of our approach was supposed to be very cold with freezing levels around 6,000 or 7,000 feet. On our summit day it never got anywhere close to above freezing. Two weeks earlier when I was on Liberty Ridge there were a lot of rocks we saw falling down the the Ridge due to the warmer conditions. I think as far as snow conditions go you could probably climb it for a couple weeks, just know that you will probably deal with more ice or at least hard snow and probably a lot more unfrozen rock.

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