MT RAINIER TRIP REPORT 1999

DATES: 15-21 OCTOBER

PARTICIPANTS: Verne McMoarn, Eric Johnson, Len Dorrian

 

Three Amigo's

      I linked up at the SeaTac airport around 20:30 on October 15th with Eric and Len. I had just completed a 40
hour instructor course in Vancouver BC. for industrial high angle rescue. Thus I had completed my
commitment to my employer (who paid the air fare from Maine) and had until the 21st to pursue the elusive summit of Mt. Rainier! I was a little late getting to the airport but Eric and Len had made themselves quite comfortable and had started to assimilate into Seattle's homeless community. After convincing them to give up their airport carts and put their gear in the trunk of the rental car, we were on our way!

     Planning for the trip had started several months earlier. Len is a Captain in the Marine Corps and is stationed in Okanawa Japan, Eric is a store manager for Eastern Mountain Sports in Massachusetts, and I work for Great Northern Paper Co. in Maine. The one thing we all have in common is a love of the mountains and mountaineering. We have climbed together many times before and were particularly psyched to be doing Rainier together. This was Len and Eric's second trip to the mountain and my third. Len and Eric had both successfully reached the summit on their first trip, Len via the Gibraltar Ledge Route and Eric via the Standard Route. I had yet to find that elusive summit.

     On my first attempt of the Standard Route, bad weather and mountain sickness drove us from the Mountain. My second attempt was of the Corridor Route on the NE side of the mountain. Because of an injury to my partner, I made my summit attempt from Camp Shurman with a group from Vancouver. The Summit escaped my grasp on that trip when the group hit their turn around time just short of the summit.

WELL THIRD TIME LUCKY!

     We spent the night of the 15th at McChord Air Force Base. On the morning of the 16th we grabbed a quick breakfast at the mess hall and were on our way! Upon signing in with the Rangers at Paradise, we got the Beta on our intended route (Standard). It seems that all the glaciers were extremely crevassed. The Ingraham had many open crevasses and the glacier had drawn away from Disappointment Cleaver, making it almost inaccessible. RMI had stopped guiding clients on the route several weeks earlier. They had set up ladders over the worst parts but now those ladders had been taken down. Aside from the Climbing Rangers, no one had made the summit in recent weeks. Obviously the pitifully inept attempts of these earlier groups was no indicator for the probability of success of the THREE AMIGOS!!

Where's the snow?
      We got a rather late start from Paradise (EL 5,400 ft), leaving the parking lot at 11:15. The weather was GREAT! Sunny skies and temperatures in the mid 70's. The forecast for the next four days was more of the same. We trudged up the Muir snowfields as day hikers, skiers, and snow boarders passed us on their way down. We arrived at Camp Muir (EL 10,000 ft) around 18:00 and set up for the night in the public shelter. There was one other occupant there that night. He had traveled from Idaho in the hopes of linking up with a group heading for the summit. Outside the shelter, in a tent, was a group of three which would be leaving for the summit at around 02:00. They had not offered to take the Lone Stranger with them.

     The morning of the 17th was warm and sunny. In an attempt to avoid sunburn, we kept ourselves in the public shelter until 10:00. At that time someone found some sun screen and we ventured out. The Lone Stranger was packing for his decent and the group in the tent were somewhere on the route above. Our plan was to move up to Ingraham Flats (EL 11,000 ft), establish camp, and do some initial route finding.

Ingraham Flats
Setting up high camp on Ingraham Flats
Ingraham Headwall
The Ingraham Headwall
      We roped up and headed out around 13:00. The Cowlitz Glacier had several serious crevasses but they were easily avoided. We encountered the group from the tent near one crevasse. They had come down from the Ingraham and were practicing crevasse rescues. We didn't spend a lot of time talking to them, as we were pretty busy breathing. We climbed up through Cathedral Rocks and onto the Ingraham, arriving at our home for the next three days at around 15:00.

     We set the tent up on the flats between two crevasses and started an initial assessment of the route. The Ingraham was indeed heavily crevassed. The glacier was totally melted away at the point where groups normally access the cleaver. There was one small snow bridge onto the cleaver with an extremely sketchy looking climb to the ridge. There were several SERIOUS crevasses along a direct approach to the bridge, we had not brought any rock pro (the exposed volcanic rock didn't look protect able anyway) and any fall would have resulted in a disappearance into the great abyss between the cleaver and the glacier, never to be heard from again. A direct approach up the left side of the Ingraham looked doable.

The upper Ingraham
     We followed tracks from the other group to the edge of the first big crevasse. From the pattern of footprints in the snow, their conversation went something like this. "Duuude!!, big hole man! Yea dude, way big! Hey dude, I think I hear my mother calling. Yea, mine too... There were also telltale signs of involuntary urinary release scattered about. We returned to camp to dine on Filet Mignon with red wine, and discuss our options for the next day. It was decided that we would try the direct approach up the left side of the glacier.

     Its 06:00 on the 18th and Eric is moving around outside getting the stove going. Len and I had stayed in the tent and Eric had bivied out. It seems my earlier assurances that my North Face Arrow would fit three snugly differed from Eric's opinion. I still say we could have done it if we had taken turns breathing. A short three hours later we were heading up the glacier with Eric in the lead, Len in the middle and me on the end. It was another day of fantastic weather. Warm, sunny, and calm. The temperature the night before had been in the high 20's to low 30's. As we progress up the glacier, we were forced to zig zag around crevasses and climb or leap across others but progress was steady and things looked good. We made it to around 12,000 ft. Before things went to hell. As we topped out on a ridge of ice we could see down into a huge crevasse in front of us. The inside of the crevasse was filled with huge blocks of ice, which had been breaking off from above as the glacier moved down the concave slope from the summit.
     The conversation went something like this.
"Duuude!!, big hole man.......


Big Hole
Optical illusion or not, it's still a deep hole!

This was around 12:00. The route, which had appeared from the tent to be criss crossed with moderate crevasses, had become impassable. We went into a group huddle to discuss our options. We decided to return to camp and reexamine the possibilities of getting onto the cleaver.
     On the way down at around 11,500-ft., we found what appeared to be a good route to the right, which would give us access to the Snow Bridge and the cleaver. We set a few wands along the route and returned to camp by 15:00.

     From camp, we could see a snow ramp on the cleaver at around 12,000-ft, which appeared to be a much better route than the lower Snow Bridge. It would require us to start up the left side of the glacier and then traverse right towards the cleaver. This route would require us to not only navigate crevasses but also a section of jumbled icefalls. After a meal of Escargot appetizers and Chicken Cordon bleu with white wine, we turned in early in order to start early the next day. Whatever the outcome, the next day would be our last opportunity to solve the route problem and summit out.

      It's 04:00 on the 19th and Eric's up and moving yet again. This time I had bivied out and he shared the tent with Len. It is still dark and the temperature is in the high 20's. Today is the day! We are all feeling strong and there are no problems with altitude sickness. Except we are all suffering in one form or another from HAFE (High Altitude Flatulence). The freeze-dried variety is not too bad but the pepperoni variety is very pungent and can actually shut your wind off and bring tears to your eyes. We had already melted snow and filled our water bottles the night before. So, after melting snow for hot drinks and an oatmeal breakfast, we packed and departed. We used our headlamps to follow our tracks and the wands we had placed the day before. By the time we had reached the end of our wands, the sun was almost up.

     Our route had taken us up and around the lower crevasses that had blocked us from the Snow Bridge to the cleaver. Unfortunately, the climb to the ridge still looked very sketchy. From our vantagepoint, we could see a potential route through the ice fields and crevasses to the upper snow ramp. This route would take us through the worst of the ice fields. Group huddle. Plan A "The Snow Bridge". Pros: (1) it could be accessed. Con's: (1) snow bridge looked iffy, (2) no protection / no rope while climbing, (3) a fall would launch you into the great abyss, (4) down climbing on the return would be even more difficult. Plan B "The Snow Ramp". Pro's: (1) the angle of the climb was a little more relaxed and protected, (2) appeared to have good access from the glacier to the cleaver. Con's: (1) would require additional route finding through the ice falls and crevasses to reach the ramp (2) might end up in a dead end. Consensus: Plan B. Up to this point the route finding had been going well and with the exception of the really huge crevasses, we had been able to find a route through the obstacles. No one was ready to die to reach the summit and the risks of plan A were just too great.

     The route through the ice fields required us to constantly weave back and forth, skirting some ice blocks while jumping between others. There were still the crevasses and pressure ridges to deal with. At one point we found ourselves leaping across a four-foot crevasse and climbing a pressure ridge where we then climbed over a fin of ice to negotiate across another crevasse. Eric had cleared the obstacles and Len started through, I was on the near side of the first crevasse and had Len on belay with an ATC. Eric also had Len on belay. He negotiated the first crevasse and pressure ridge with no problem. He then proceeded to cross the second crevasse. It was at this point that a comedy of errors occurred.

Weaving
Our Wanderous Route
Belaying
Do you have me?
     At some point in crossing the second crevasse, an ice bollard that Len was standing on broke off sending him down into the crevasse. I was belaying Len from a standing position and, not being able to see or hear him very well, was not prepared for the sudden jerk on the line. Len's fall pulled me just two short steps forward. The first step brought my right foot to the edge of the first crevasse, the second step planted my left foot squarely and solidly on the opposite side of the crevasse!

      The conversation (from my perspective) went something like this. Me"Duude!! Big hole man!!!"(gonads head for higher ground). Len "Mmmm!!, Aa!,Aa!, Mm,Aaaa!!!!". Eric "Uah! Eah! Huh??". Needless to say I found my position a bit precarious. Through a relayed conversation with Eric I found out that Len was OK. I then asked if he could get safe while I repositioned. From Lens muffled reply it became apparent that he considered his situation more important than mine (selfish S.O.B.). When he finally climbed out on his own I let him know I didn't appreciate him fooling around like that and that he should take this glacier traveling a little more seriously!

     We were getting closer to the snow ramp and eventually reached the base of a rather steep 30-ft. ice wall. This was the steepest thing we had yet encountered. It would probably rate at a 3- which is fairly significant when you are climbing with a single 90cm alpine ax. I led this portion of the route and found a great Ice bollard to belay from at the top and brought up Len and Eric. Eric then led out up a pressure ridge. He reached the top and.... "Duuude!! Big hole man!!!!". Our bid for the summit along this route had just come to an end.

     Len and I climbed up to the lip of the crevasse to have a look. It was awesome! The crevasse we were looking at was more of a bowl than a crevasse. On the far side was the sheer, overhung, upper glacier, to our left were huge fractured ice blocks and to our right... To our right was the outlet to the bowl. It sloped down towards the cleaver. At this point we were even with and approximately 800 horizontal feet from the snow ramp we had hoped to use. We hung out for a while admiring the view and eventually headed down.

     The trip back to the tent was uneventful (Len took my advice and didn't stop to play in any crevasses). After a brief rest and some hot drinks, we packed up and headed down to Camp Muir.
     Its the morning of the 20th and a Wednesday, we have the mountain all to ourselves. We have to be off the mountain today. We are all flying back to reality tomorrow, back to the real world. But we have time for one last hurrah! We went up to the crevasse on the Cowlitz that the other group had been practicing in for a little training of our own. We practiced retrieving a climber who had fallen in a crevasse. We ran a scenario where the lead man had fallen in and one where the climber in the middle had fallen in. We initially set up a 3:1 Z rig but with one climber tending the anchors and prussics it was difficult for the other climber to run the haul line alone. We then piggybacked a 2:1 system onto the Z rig making a 6:1 system. This made it much easier for one person to pull the fallen climber out. We also practiced self-rescue techniques. Hindsight being 20/20 we probably should have practiced first then climbed!

     We departed Camp Muir on skis around 13:30 for Paradise. Skiing on hard packed snow and ice with 80lb packs sucks if you aren't a good skier! Eric - good skier. Len and Verne - Bad skiers. Eric - good time. Len and Verne - bad time. It was still better than walking. We got down to Paradise around 16:30.

      On the trails below the snowfields we started encountering day hikers and people who were not planning on venturing far away from their car. Many showed a mild curiosity towards these odoriferous mountain men hiking along in their underwear and carrying huge packs with skis protruding from the top. Some asked questions like "How's the skiing?" and "What's it like up there?". But one man after asking if we had reached the top and being informed we had not, offered us the following advice. "You should really have someone with experience with you."

NOW WHY DIDN'T WE THINK OF THAT???

Little Tahoma
Room with a view

Third time lucky? I think so. Great Friends + Great Mountain = Great Time!