I just got back from my nine day Pacific Northwest climbing trip. The first mountain on the agenda was Mt Rainier via Disappointment Cleaver. I envisioned this as a straight forward climb that would go fairly smoothly and for the most part it did and yet my attempt ended in failure.
From North Carolina my climbing partner Ben and I landed about noon in Seattle. After collecting our massive bags we hit up REI for some fuel and food and headed to the park to set up camp. We arrived at the Paradise visitors center right before close and took care of the climbing permit. It was late so we set up camp down at Cougar Rock where we could sort our gear and prep for climbing the DC route on Rainier.
When we woke up the pleasant weather of the day prior had turned to a nasty heavy mist that soaked everything and chilled me to the bone. The forecast for the next day good so we figured we’d tough it out and head to Camp Muir.
That hike was one of the most miserable hikes of my life.
When everything is perfect the Muir snowfield is a pleasant snow hike. When conditions are nasty the pleasant snow hike turns into a death march through nightmarish slush.
After entirely too many hours of death marching we arrived at Camp Muir and snagged a place in the climbing hut. It was the Sunday of the Fourth of July weekend and everybody and their mother was hiding from the weather in the hut. It was kind of cool to shoot the shit with everyone holed up there but nothing smells worse than twenty wet climbers in a poorly ventilated hut.
The overarching theme of the Disappointment Cleaver is slow, monotonous uphill hiking. There is a clearly beaten path all the way to the top and that if you stay on trail the crevice danger is minimal. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that DC is safe. There are many objective hazards on this route that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Rockfall is a real and ever present danger and you do pass in the fall path of numerous seracs. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because the Disappointment Cleaver is popular it is safe.
Ben and I took this route seriously and moved cautiously and deliberately. From Camp Muir you traverse your way over to Cathedral Gap which is by far my least favorite portion of the climb. I would describe the Cathedral Gap as walking up a huge gravel pile while trying not to dislodge toaster sized boulders that will surely maim the climbers below you. Now somehow make that nastier and you have an idea of Cathedral Gap. It should come as now surprise that I hurried my sweet ass through there.
Once past the rockfall of Cathedral Gap you are on the Ingraham Glacier which presents another objective hazard. In order to get on to the Cleaver proper I had to pass beneath a huge serac that seemed to want to shower down ice blocks on unsuspecting climbers that pass in the darkest hours of the night. My little headlamp is bright but lucky for me I couldn’t see the ominous looking serac as I was going up and only on the way down did I realize what a present danger this little passage was.
To get on the cleaver proper you have to traverse around its steep base. It is steep but it isn’t run out. I say it isn’t run out because there is a man eating crevice that will swallow you in a heartbeat if you fall. In order to protect this section for the hordes of sloppy footed climbers that RMI drags up the mountain every year they place fixed ropes and beat a flat but narrow pathway. I would liken it to walking the plank but without the whole pirate thing going on.
After hopping off the plank I got the distinct pleasure of climbing up Disappointment Cleaver. This little chunk of climbing is probably the closest thing to ‘real’ climbing the route offers. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t get a little nervous climbing 35 degree snow and rock in the dark. I kept doing switchback after switchback, hopping up boulders and over broken snow.
It was fun for a while until I realized that my partner was struggling bad. Ben was huffing and puffing and moving at a steady one step, two step, rest, rest, rest pace. I could tell that he just wasn’t there mentally and he was getting confused pretty damn easily. The final straw was when he nearly bit it after snagging his crampons on a rock. I was completely cool with him toughing out the huffing and puffing, and the headache and nausea are just part of altitude climbing. But when I am tied to someone they absolutely have to be solid on their feet.
Turning around was the hardest decision of the entire trip. I gave up the summit, not because the mountain said no, but because Ben’s body said no. It was the right decision but that is little consolation to a summitless climber.
All in all, the climb was what it was. I say this now because in the end we went back and tagged the summit but that is Mt Rainier – Disappointment Cleaver Part II.