| Mt. Rainiering: Disappointment Cleaver
MOUNTAIN: Mt. Rainier (14,411')
ROUTE: Disappointment Cleaver
CAMP: Ingraham Flats (11,100')
DAYS ON MOUNTAIN: July 4-6, 2012
SUMMIT DAY: July 6, 2012
PRIOR GLACIER EXPERIENCE (COMBINED): 0
CLIMBERS: Matt (Matt), Matthew (speth), Greg (gregory_fischer), Jeff (SurfNTurf)
First off, it was apparently a 14ers.com Gathering on Rainier this week. Even though I didn’t bump into anyone except I Man and robco over victory beers, congrats to the other groups on their summits. I’m sure mine won’t be the only TR, and I look forward to reading them all.
The itch to do Rainier has been around forever, but the mountain always felt unattainable. A guide was out of my price range and I didn’t have the glacier skills to try it on my own. When my good buddy kushrocks and his badass girlfriend Annie summited last summer unguided, however, it inspired me to launch an attempt.
The initial are-you-interested PM went out last September, and as usual with these things, people joined and dropped out and joined and dropped out until finally three of us bought plane tickets to Seattle for July 3: Matt (Matt), Matthew (speth) and me. Greg (gregory_fischer) joined somewhat last-minute because he was already planning to drive to the Pacific Northwest for a family vacation and decided to sneak away for a couple days. Chris: congrats on med school brother, we all wished you could have made it.
Plane tickets bought, it was time to focus on training. None of us had ever set foot on a glacier or set up a crevasse rescue pulley. A very, very special and sincere THANK YOU to Carl, Marc and James for taking time to show us the ropes. We also relied heavily on the great little book Glacier Mountaineering: An Illustrated Guide to Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue by Andy Tyson and Mike Clelland. We went once to St. Mary’s Glacier and met several times in Denver-area parks until we understood the theories and were able to set up a Z-pulley in our sleep.
I am exceptionally proud of this team because the four of us came together and reached the summit as equals. We didn’t hire a guide and none of us had prior glacier experience. Learning glacier travel and crevasse rescue is a daunting task for the uninitiated, but we did the homework, put in the training hours and relied solely on ourselves on the mountain. It really felt like we earned Columbia Crest.
By the time we boarded our flight for Seattle on July 3, we felt ready. Tip: sit on the left side of the plane flying into Seattle. You’ll be treated to some nifty views.
Our flight was scheduled to land at 7:10 p.m., giving us plenty of time to check-in to our Tacoma hotel and hit REI and the grocery store. Lady luck wasn’t with us at the beginning. The plane was delayed two hours for unknown reasons, and by the time we acquired our rental car at SeaTac it was almost 11 p.m. The plan was to go straight to Paradise in the morning, so we were already at a disadvantage.
Thankfully there are these wonderful things known as 24-hour WalMart SuperCenters. We stopped by one at about 7 a.m. somewhere between Tacoma and Mt. Rainier National Park that satisfied all of our fuel and food needs.
We arrived at Paradise shortly before 10 a.m., a few hours later than we’d have liked but still fine. It took a while to sort gear, secure our permits and stare warily at our newly acquired blue bags, but we finally hit the trail at about 11:15 a.m. We were on snow within a few feet of the parking lot. From there, the summit of Mt. Rainier loomed nearly 9,000’ above. It was an indescribable sight.
Gearing up and taking over a large section of the Paradise parking lot.
Mt. Rainier and 9,000' of vertical relief.
Obligatory setting-off group photo (L-R Matthew, Greg, Matt, Jeff).
No ropes are necessary on the initial trail or the Muir Snowfield, so we agreed to go our own paces and regroup at Camp Muir (10,080’). Greg and I made it around 3:45 p.m. and snooped around, after witnessing a HUGE avalanche on the way up. Gulp. The weather the previous week had been atrocious, with several consecutive days of non-summits. Guides and park rangers alike spoke continuously of avalanche danger from 6+ inches of fresh snow. Our spirits sank. The weather was supposed to be stellar, but that wouldn’t mean squat if the upper route was an avalanche death zone.
The Muir Snowfield is the right-hand ridgeline.
Arriving at Camp Muir.
The Matts arrived not long after us and we took an extended break, roping up (we used an 8.3mm 40-meter Mammut Glacier Line) to cross the Cowlitz Glacier a little after 6 p.m. The first steps onto a real glacier were equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. Everything we’d been practicing for months was now for real. I dressed my prusiks, took a deep breath and set out for Cathedral Gap.
Matthew roped in to cross the Cowlitz Glacier.
Carrying 50-pound packs up 5,500’ in a day was, as you might expect, exhausting. We limped into our campsite at the Ingraham Flats (11,100’) with only an hour or two of daylight remaining. The storms of the previous week had erased any existing platforms aside from those already in use, so we set to shoveling and stamping out level spaces. A big team from Alpine Ascents International (AAI) was already sleeping in preparation for a midnight wake-up call, so we tried our best to keep quiet.
The weather forecast was borderline perfect all the way through Saturday, except for moderate winds. We had camping permits for the Flats for 7/4 and 7/5, and then Camp Muir for 7/6 and 7/7. Time was on our side. Given our late arrival, the avalanche danger and the clear skies, we unanimously decided to declare 7/5 a rest day. I enjoyed the sunset and kept my eyes peeled for fireworks, looking forward to sleeping in the next morning.
First sighting of the guide tents and the Ingraham Flats.
Not a bad view for sunset; Happy Fourth of July!
The next day dawned still, clear and bright. Our only objective: eat a ton of food and kill about 12 hours by doing nothing. The chief source of entertainment was building the world’s creepiest tortured snowman and trying to knock it into a crevasse with snowballs. A house-sized serac also came loose about 200 horizontal feet from our camp, reinforcing the fact that “holy-$%^&-we’re-on-a-freaking-glacier.”
Most of the AAI group turned around above the Disappointment Cleaver, citing “pockets of instability” in the snow. One pair – a strong client and a guide short-roping him – made the summit, along with an independent party of three. We never saw the mob from RMI so they either turned around super early or didn’t even mount an attempt 7/5. A few people making the summit and a strong melt-freeze cycle boosted our morale for our own try the next morning.
Rope team coming down an exposed section of the Disappointment Cleaver.
Chinook helicopter on the way to retrieve the body of hero, park ranger Nick Hall, who died on the Emmons Glacier the previous week. RIP.
Matthew and The World's Creepiest Snowman.
Sunset on July 5. Our thoughts turn to our summit attempt, mere hours away.
AAI left and was replaced by a big guided group from International Mountain Guides (IMG); the two companies share the stocked tents at the Flats. We remained as the only independent party up there. The IMG folks were super nice, giving us their outlook on the avalanche conditions (it should be fine) and even some of their leftover pasta. They went to sleep at 5:30 p.m. and we followed not long thereafter, with alarms set for 1 a.m.
We stalled a bit to give the IMG party a headstart and eventually hit the trail ourselves at 2:45 a.m. The trail zigs and zags around some truly massive crevasses before turning right and traversing to the nose of the Disappointment Cleaver. The Cleaver is currently in more-challenging-than-normal shape, with some snow sections steepening to above 40 degrees. The guiding companies have placed fixed ropes on much of the route between 11,300’ and 12,200’.
In the dark, we couldn’t do much more than focus on the few steps in front of us. The RMI snake of 15+ headlamps came into view over our shoulders and gave us motivation to keep moving. Sunrise greeted us at the top of the Cleaver, along with a hellish wind. Two independent parties ahead of us turned around as soon as the gusts started whipping, but we felt comfortable and IMG was still heading up. We took a break, adjusted layers, and continued.
We were on about an equal pace with a rope team of four from Spokane, so the eight of us moved on together. IMG was ahead, RMI and two or three more unguided parties were behind. The mountain felt well-loved but not overly crowded, kind of like a weekday 14er.
Sunrise high on the route, above 13,000'.
The trail disappeared at parts above the Cleaver, as new snow and high winds had obscured it. Wands helped us navigate the tricky parts. We did cross a few sections of questionable wind slab, but luckily nothing slid. The winds got worse and worse until eventually we were in full-on winter mountaineering mode. Several gusts reached into the 30- to 40-miles per hour range. Just when it started to get frustratingly cold, however, the sun’s warmth reached us around 13,500’. For the first time we all realized we were going to make the summit. Our moods soared.
Final push toward the summit.
One last break before the crater rim!
We crested the summit crater shortly before 8 a.m., about the same time as the IMG group. We caught our breath, unroped and wasted little time traversing the final couple hundred feet to the true high point, Columbia Crest. Here we took our obligatory summit photos, but as the wind speed was continuing to increase, we returned to our rope after only 10-15 minutes. We forced down some food and water and started the long 9,000’ drop to Paradise at about 8:45 a.m.
Looking back on the summit crater from Columbia Crest, the true high point.
Group shot on Columbia Crest (L-R Matthew, Greg, Jeff, Matt).
Another team heading to Columbia Crest, from where we gained the crater rim.
The descent took longer than anticipated because of worsening winds and bottlenecks at the fixed lines on the Cleaver. A few gusts were now strong enough to almost knock me over, which in my experience means 40+ miles per hour. The warm day had wreaked havoc on the steeper sections of snow, requiring extra caution to avoid a slip and subsequent 1,000-foot tumble to the Ingraham Glacier below. None of us breathed easy until we were off the Cleaver and back at camp.
Starting the long slog down, chased by increasing winds.
Little Tahoma and camp waaaaaay down on the Ingraham Glacier.
See, I told you it's down there.
Spokane rope team takes a break at the top of the Disappointment Cleaver.
Bottleneck waiting to get back on the fixed lines.
Crossing the nose of the Cleaver; almost home!
With the wind continuing to worsen and Rainier now sporting a lenticular cloud cap, we didn’t take much of a break at the Flats. We just wanted to get down. The wind finally abated a bit at Muir, where we took a long break and packed away the rope. The 4,500’ descent down the Muir Snowfield went quickly, with many long glissades. We reached Paradise around 4:30 p.m. and basked in our accomplishment. Rainier didn’t seem happy to have allowed us to summit. The upper route was now entirely shrouded in an angry-looking cloud.
Me, back at Camp Muir. Time to put away the ropes and gear.
Mt. Rainier got angry as we descended.
We stopped for dinner at the Whittaker compound and bought a few souvenirs at Whittaker Mountaineering. Our hotel back in Tacoma was a welcome relief, and by the time we’d all showered and forced down a beer or three we could no longer keep our eyes open.
Saturday was spent exploring downtown Seattle – namely, Pike Place Market and several local breweries. We also spent countless minutes staring at Rainier, which absolutely looms on the horizon. The Pike Brewery gets a huge recommendation, along with Brouwers in Fremont.
The trip was about the perfect length. We’d initially harbored thoughts of also attempting Mt. Hood, but spending an extra day on Rainier and a day touring Seattle was the way to go in our eyes. I personally wouldn’t change a thing. Only a day removed from the Pacific Northwest and about as broke as broke gets, I can’t shake one nagging thought from my mind: whither next?
Mt. Rainier from the waterfront in downtown Seattle.
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