Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Mt. Rainier...the Return Trip (part 2)

Sunrise on Rainier
So, where was I? Oh yes, it's the morning of day 2, the weather is looking very cooperative but the unusually warm summer has caused a large cravasse to open up and our route to the summit is blown. My fellow climbers and I head over to the Weatherport for breakfast all feeling a bit apprehensive. The guides give us a bit more information at breakfast: a snow bridge over a cravasse above the Disappointment Cleaver had melted out; but two of our guides, along with two from RMI, would be heading up to scope out a way over or around the cravasse while we are doing our normal day 2 training at Muir. However, these guys were making no pomises. 

After breakfasting (pancakes, bacon and French press coffee!), we do the obligatory ice ax arrest training - to learn how to stop from sliding down the face of a glacier into a bottomless cravasse; cramponing techniques - its not easy walking around with a 12-pointed Chinese throwing star on each foot; and roped glacier travel. (Off and on during our training I overhear the guides' radios; the guys trying to set a new route radioed in several times, never sounding very positive about their progress.) By early afternoon we were ready to throw on our packs, rope up and head off across the Cowlitz glacier en route to high camp at Ingraham Flats.

Cowlitz Glacier and Cathedral Rocks
The walk across the Cowlitz is not that far (took about 45 minutes) but hitting Cathedral Rocks was a new experience. Last year the entire trip to the Gap was on snow and ice. This year we climbed a couple of hundred feet on the very rotten volcanic rock that makes up the entirety of Rainier and cramponing on that stuff is difficult - loose chunks of rock and gravel, metal-toothed crampons and a fairly steep pitch are a poor combination. We took a break at the top of the Gap and got our first view of Little Tahoma and the massive cravasses in that section of the Ingraham glacier.

Little Tahoma peak and the Ingraham Glacier
This is as far as we came last year, so a bit farther up route I got my first glimpse of the high camp at Ingraham Flats. It's not a lot to look at but I was struck by the nearness of the camp to cravasses that were large enough to swallow houses!

High Camp at Ingraham Flats and the lower Disappointment Cleaver
We arrived in camp around 3pm and got settled into our tents. We had a couple of hours until an early dinner and I managed to get a little rest. Right before dinner the guides sat us down outside the tents and finally gave us some info about the route above us. The guys had been unsuccessful in getting over the cravasse or simply around it. Instead, they set a new route traversing all the way over to the Emmons glacier. But that was as far as they were able to get before heading back down to us (they were still on their way down at that time). We were told that this is the normal route later in the season but since no one had been on the upper mountain on this route yet this year, we had no idea what to expect up there. We would get up and make our summit attempt as planned but we'd have to wait and see what the mountain would have in store for us higher up. 

After an early dinner we headed back to the tents to reorganize our packs for the alpine start the next morning. We would be leaving sleeping bags and pads, unneeded clothing and extra food behind in the tents so we wouldn't be carrying any extra weight up to the summit. This made for a nice, light pack that I was sure I'd be thankful for above 13,000 ft. We all bedded down by 8pm, while it was still quite light outside, and I tried to sleep. Using my buff as a blindfold and with Liquid Mind playing in my ears I think I managed about 90 minutes of actual sleep. It had gotten quite windy as evening turned to night and I was sure it was raining or sleeting by the sound of the tent. However, when I had to get up to use the pee hole (yeah, just a hole in the snow) I was relieved to learn the sound was just spindrift whipped up by the wind. The sky was quite clear, in fact, and the stars were beyond brilliant!

We were all up by 2am for our Alpine start and on the trail by 3. Jack and I found ourselves on the rope with our lead guide, Peter. We led the group out of camp, headlamps blazing, and stayed out front all morning. (This would end up to be a very good thing.) We were not more than 20 minutes out of camp when we came to an unexpected (at least by me) obstacle. Before us was cravasse with nothing but a ladder laid across it. On said ladder was lashed a strip of plywood to make this into a very scary-looking bridge. Oh, but at least there was a hand line on the left, a very smallish rope, and also a running belay at the far side (so we were perfectly safe...I think). I was at the end of our rope team so crossed this thing last. I trained the beam of my headlamp into the depths of the cravasse as I crossed it but the light didn't seem to get very far, definitely couldn't see the bottom. 

Not far after that little adventure we set foot on the Disappointment Cleaver (the "DC"), devoid of snow, and spent the next hour on that large rock outcropping. Above the DC somewhere was the cravasse that had caused so much trouble yesterday, but as it was very dark I never saw where our route diverged from the earlier one. It wasn't long after we started the traverse over to the Emmons that the sky began to lighten. I had been looking foward to a sunrise on Rainier for over a year. We were above 12,000 ft at this point and most of the world was below us. Right before the sun rose the view was incredible. Once the sun broke the horizon, the entire mountain was ablaze with colored light! It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen and the pictures completely fail to capture it.

Looking back at Little Tahoma
From then on, it was long, slow climb up a lot of snow and ice. Thankfully, we encountered no surprises up there above where the guides had scoped out the day before. It was tedious and tiring though I was rewarded by a great view whenever we took a break or could venture a glance up from watching each and every foot placement. The pitch got pretty steep at times but this is just what the upper mountain is like!

Upper Mountain, view of Mt. Adams
After a long traverse heading mostly north on onto the Emmons, we switched back and headed toward the Nisqually glacier. Not long before the final push to the summit (I'm guessing we were around 14,000 ft), I glanced down and saw Camp Muir, waaaaaay below us. I zoomed the camera all the way (it's a 14x lens) to take this picture and wish I would have taken one without the zoom because looking down at where we started less than 20 hours ago was pretty cool.

Camp Muir as seen from 14,000 ft
After a final break, we turned to our right and climbed steeply up to to the crater rim for the last 20 minutes of the climb! 

(To be continued...one more time!)

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