Lessons Learned on Disappointment Cleaver – Rainier

This trip report may sound unduly harsh but if the saying “good judgment is the result of experience and experience is often the result of bad judgment” then this is a story of developing better judgment.  I’ll apologize in advance for the length but even at over 2300 words it still does not encompass the entire trip.

I recently moved to Seattle from North Carolina.  One of the toughest things about moving is that you have to develop new climbing partners.  I use the word develop because more likely than not the first time you go climbing with someone your styles won’t completely mesh, but given a couple of adventures your styles will start to blend and you develop a partnership that works.  This is all based on the assumption that both you and your newfound partner are safe and have good judgment.

This past weekend I took up an offer to climb Rainier with two guys I didn’t know.  A guy I met on SummitPost, Josh, was organizing a trip and was looking for a third.  I gave him a call and he assured me that he had years of experience on glaciers and was competent with crevasse rescue though he had never done it in real life.  I’ll give him credit because he went for full disclosure and said he was young.  I have no problem with people being young because I only have four years experience in the mountains so if someone grew up in the mountains who am I to say that their years of experience are any less valuable than mine.  In talking to him I came to the understanding that the third person on the rope team would be a very experienced, in shape climber and I would be a team member as opposed to a team leader.

I agreed to go on these assumptions and the next day Josh and I carpooled to Rainier and would meet the third guy at Paradise because he was coming from Portland and we were coming from Seattle.  When we got to Paradise Bill, the third guy, was waiting for us and ready to go.  I’ll put this out on the table, Bill is deaf.  I have absolutely zero problem climbing with someone with a physical limitation but I want to know about it before I agree to tie in so I can make an informed decision about the mountain, the route and the general safety of the team.  Since Bill was ready to go and we still had to sort gear he took off and said we would probably catch him on the way up.  I was a little miffed that Bill was leaving without us but he is 60 years old and I figured he knew what he was doing.  I was also a little miffed that Josh didn’t tell me about Bill’s hearing situation but I kept that to myself.

Since it was late in the season the hike to Camp Muir was not in the greatest shape.  Instead of a snow slog all the way up, the route was melted out and from 8500 feet to Muir it was crevassed alpine ice.  I wasn’t expecting crevasses or ice this low but I was already prepared with ice screws for higher on the mountain so the ice wasn’t a deal breaker.  My first justified misgiving was when I gave Josh an ice screw and he looked bewildered by the need for a screw, why there was a plastic cap on the bottom and what the attached runner was for.  I didn’t like this one bit but I gave him a quick run down of how to place an ice screw and off we went.

The first hour or two of the hike was pleasant.  Manicured trail, luscious scenery and the foggy mist was keeping me from sweating all that much.  It was all around fantastic except for the fact that every time Josh needed water we would have to stop so he could take off his pack and get a water bottle.  It was time consuming but we were in no rush.  On one of these stops I noticed that he brought an insulated cooler lunch box.  This seemed odd to me for an experienced climber but to each his own I thought.

We didn’t hit snow until pretty high on the “snowfield.”  I find walking in snow a little easier than walking on broken rock so I was happy that we were finally there but well aware that now that we were on the snowfield we would have to take heed to the warning signs about crevasses.  Josh was moving a little quicker than I was and started blazing a trail through unbroken snow even though there was a clear, kicked out trail.  At this point I made the decision that he had overstated his experience and I was compelled to say something.  An experienced climber would know that you should follow the kicked out trail because it is both less tiresome and safer.  Josh was receptive to the advice and things were still moving along ok.  I was slightly concerned that we hadn’t caught up to Bill but we were moving at a slow but steady pace and I wasn’t too worried about it.

When we finally cleared the mist it turned into a glorious day.  Josh and I were feeling strong and we were making good time.  Also with the mist gone we could see how broken up the snowfield was and that from 8500′ up it was going to be wet, broken up ice.  When we arrived at the ice I decided that it would be easier to put on my crampons and I suggested to Josh to do the same.  They weren’t necessary but it made walking easier and I would hate to find myself in a situation where I need my crampons but it is too nasty to put them on.  Josh decided not to put his on and I didn’t think much of it.

The snowfield was pretty broken up and as we continued it required some mild route finding.  The widest crevasse was about five feet across and maybe 20 feet until a dirt bottom.  Not a man-eater but definitely enough to ruin your day.

Nothing all too exciting happened the rest of the way up but seeing the condition of the snowfield and seeing the condition of the route above I was teetering towards calling Camp Muir our “summit.”

Josh and I got to Camp Muir, set up shop, ate and took a nap.  Bill was nowhere to be seen but there were a lot of people there and he could have been nestled up in his bivy sack having a mid-day snooze like I just did.

One of the best things about Camp Muir is that everyone congregates around the hut and just sort of sits around and bullshits.  In bullshitting with the other guys and gals I found out that the route was pretty beat up.  Instead of the slog to the top that the Disappointment Cleaver normally is, it was as the ranger said “sketch factor 12” and “the wild west up there.”  RMI had hauled some ladders up there to cross some wide crevasses but the glaciers kept moving and bending the aluminum ladders.  To me that kind of action on a glacier requires confidence in yourself and confidence in your team.  The pit of my stomach said no and after figuring out that it was the logical side of my brain and not the fear side saying “no” I told Josh and Bill.

Bill tried to convince me to go just around the corner of the cathedral to check out the rest of the route.  I immediately thought this was a bad idea.  For one, Bill had left half an hour before Josh and me and arrived two hours after we did.  He was not a speed demon and in the few hours at Camp Muir I had heard multiple non-trivial rockslides coming from up above.  If you’ve ever climbed the Disappointment Cleaver you know that even under the best conditions the cathedral drops fist-sized rocks down and these were not the best conditions.  I would want to turn the corner on the cathedral quickly and I did not see that happening.  I also knew that it would be night when we turned the corner and even under a half moon I could not properly evaluate the route above.

I stuck to my guns and Josh and Bill respected my decision.  If you two are reading this, thank you.  The rest of the evening went fairly smoothly with only little things irking me like Josh asking for half of my last liter of water even though I found out later he had a liter and a half left that he forgot about.  Or Bill asking me how to get water and then finding out his lighter didn’t work and his stove was non-functioning.  I felt like I was guiding them and that is not what I signed up for.

The next day we headed down.  I gathered clean ice and brewed water for Bill and Josh while they packed.  We were going to head down the now hard ice together at a safe, leisurely pace with another team of four.  After filling their water bottles I started to pack.  A little while later I discovered that Bill had decided to leave without us and was now the sole spec moving through the crevasse field.  He didn’t tell Josh or me that he was leaving and all I could think was “mother-f**cker, if I have to pull your body from that field I am going to be so pissed.”

Josh and I started down with the party of four as planned.  We got to the ice and I told Josh that he should put on his crampons.  He said he was fine and I relented.  After about 100 feet and a few slips Josh decided to put on his crampons.  He sat down, pulled out half his pack on the ice slope because his crampons were towards the bottom of his pack and started putting them on.  I stood there and watched patiently while he adjusted their length and tried to strap them on.  It was pretty obvious that these weren’t his crampons because they were not sized for his boots and because they were the kind made for boots with heel welts and his hiking boots did not have heel welts.

After a little fiddling with the crampons he made the best of it and we kept moving.  Soon enough a crampon popped and he bit it.  At this point it was safer to have them off than to stumble with them on so he strapped them to his pack and moved very cautiously down the ice field.  As the field got steeper we moved slower and slower eventually to the point that Josh was not going to be able to continue safely.

I thought about numerous scenarios including short roping him but what turned out to be the best solutions was eating my pride and catching up to the party of four and asking if one of them had strap on crampons and would trade with Josh.  In that party of four was quite possibly the kindest soul I have ever met.  She was willing to trade crampons and hiked back up the ice field, strapped her crampons to Josh Cinderella style and was pleasant the entire time.

Bill was nowhere to be found and I could only assume the worst.  Eventually Josh and I caught up to him and after a few small misadventures we made it down safely.

In reading this I realize that I am using harsh words but I want to make sure my message is clear to Bill and Josh.  It is extremely easy to get in over your head in the mountains.  You need to have the gear, the judgment and the team to tackle a big mountain.  It is like the poker saying, if you don’t know who the sucker is at the table it is you.  In the mountains if you don’t know what the risks are and what to be worried about then you should reevaluate your plan.

I can’t end this trip report on a critical note so I’ll end it with some unsolicited advice to climbers looking for experience.  One) take a climbing course.  If you are going to pay a guide service go on one of their skills courses and not on just a summit climb.  I took AAI’s Alpinism I course and really liked it.  I’m going to take an avy safety course soon because I don’t know enough about avalanches.  You can never have too much training. Two) climb “boring” mountains with experienced people.  The conversations alone will improve your climbing tremendously.  Three) don’t overstate your climbing abilities.  Four) check your gear before a climb.  Make sure it works properly and is packed correctly.  Things like crampons, harness and rope should be at the top of your pack for quick access.  Go over your gear with your partner if you’re not confident.  Five) know your knots, know your safety system, know your exits to the point where it is not a thinking process it is just a reaction.  I have practiced crevasse rescue on my living room floor with an ice ax and rope.  I looked ridiculous but I know what I’m doing.  Go to a local crag and prussic up a fixed rope.  You’ll soon figure out that it is exhausting but can be made easier with practice.  Six and final) be patient.  Just like medieval battlefields were littered with the bodies of mediocre swordsmen, mountains are littered with the bodies of mediocre climbers.  You’ll get there in time so don’t give up.

6 thoughts on “Lessons Learned on Disappointment Cleaver – Rainier

  1. Brian

    Jon, as you may know by now, Josh has a bit of a reputation on NWHikers, where he has taken far more abuse (for this and other trips) than you provide in the report. On the other side, I was a bit disappointed to see how much abuse you have taken on Summitpost for this same report. I too have been on trips where partners have misrepresented their skills, and nothing makes me more upset than the betrayal of trust when lives are on the line. There are lots of great people and climbers out here in the PNW, and hopefully this first experience won’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth!

  2. Jon

    Thanks for the words Brian. I’ve climbed with enough people to know that some of them will work out and some of them won’t. It is an ordeal to find partner(s) that you mesh with but once you do it is all worth it.

    -Jon

  3. Pingback: Another Go at the Disappointment Cleaver on Rainier | OnTheSharpEnd.com

  4. Danny

    Wow! Good story. I don’t think your criticisms were unduly harsh or malicious. I find them to be a good reminder to err on the side of underestimating one’s abilities, rather than overestimating them.

  5. Shirley

    Jon, I really enjoyed your story. I only climbed with AAI in 2010 and I will agree with you, it’s hard to get into alpining while in grad school.

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