The Disappointment Cleaver is the de facto trade route on Mt Rainier. The route has been etched into Rainier by endless trains of crampons being shuffled to the summit. Yet the route is still chock full of dangers despite the manicured trail to the summit. There are crevasses that will swallow you whole, the constant thunder of rock fall, and the ever present danger of tumbling thousands of feet. On my recent climb of the DC over Labor Day weekend I was acutely reminded that Rainier is not to be trifled with and should always be treated with healthy trepidation.
My soon to be brother in law Grant and I decided to climb Rainier over Labor Day weekend. We’d attempted the DC once before but conditions were awful and a summit bid from Camp Muir was out of the question. In contrast to the white-outs and whipping winds of last year, this year’s forecast was next to perfect. It was supposed to be sunny with a light breeze and in the 40’s. If anything it was going to be hot.
We planned a Friday-Saturday climb and on Friday we took our sweet time to get to Paradise. The weather was great and I was not in a huge hurry to get to Camp Muir just so I could wait around. I would much rather conserve my energy and enjoy the day hike up the snowfield. We got to Camp Muir around 4:30 and surprisingly the hut was relatively deserted. There were maybe twenty odd people there and we easily found bunk space. I was not planning on finding an opening in the hut on Labor Day weekend but I guess we got lucky.
Of those twenty odd people only three did not scare me, and one of those three was the ranger. There was a team of two girls that had one locking carabiner between the two of them and didn’t know how to put on their brand new harnesses. I overheard a random climber who knew just enough to be dangerous giving them a crash course in glacier safety. He scared me even more than the girls because he was making it sound like no big deal to pull someone out of a crevasse. There were also a couple Eastern European college kids wearing cotton sweatpants and tennis shoes that seemed intent on giving it a go but lacked any sort of plan. It was a motley bunch at Camp Muir and I am not saying that in the cutesy Sandlot sort of way.
Grant and I were a little uncertain as to what time we should leave Camp Muir for our summit bid. We were a team of two so minimizing crevasse danger was high on my list of priorities. If we started early we could cross any covered crevasses while they were at their strongest but we would be unable to evaluate their strength fully. If we started too late the snow bridges would be weaker but we’d be able to more fully evaluate their strength. We decided to leave the hut at 2AM which in retrospect was too late but it was the decision we made.
We moved methodically over the Cowlitz Glacier, up Cathedral Rocks and over to Ingraham Flats. From there I could see that all the guided parties were already high on the cleaver and an inkling of self-doubt arose about our departure time. We really couldn’t do anything about it but keep moving and that is what we did.
Shortly before getting on the cleaver we encountered the first spicy section of the day. In order to get to the cleaver we had to cross through what amounted to a mess of thin bridges through an ice fall. I’m not sure if it was technically an ice fall or just jumbled snow over a crevasse system but I do know that we were walking over an abyss and punching through was not an option. The guide services had attached hand lines through the Emmons Shoulder which were comforting but the area was still sphincter puckering scary.
Once we were on the Disappointment Cleaver proper we shortened up the rope and started scrambling our way through heaps of loose rock. The first time I climbed Rainier Ben and I were near the middle of the herd going up the mountain. I didn’t realize it at the time but having head lamps to follow through the broken up cleaver is immensely helpful. On this trip Grant and I were following the path of least resistance which on a few occasions resulted in back-tracking a bit to get on the ‘trail’. I could tell when we were back on the main route by the deep crampon scrapes on each rock step.
There was no fun to be had on the cleaver but we continued up and avoided being pummeled by falling rocks. Near the top of the cleaver we found some protection from the wind and took a real rest. Grant didn’t know it at the time but those last ~2,000 feet seem to take an eternity. For the remainder of the climb the summit looked like it was one hard push away but the altitude mocked any attempt of ours to speed up.
Besides a dali-esque sunrise over a red Little Tahoma wrapped in pink glaciers there was not much of note until 13,600 feet. Up until this point in my climbing career I had been fortunate enough to not have had to cross a crevasse via a ladder. There is something inherently scary about walking on a shaky aluminum catwalk over a gaping crevasse. With each awkward step the ladder creaked and rocked to-and-fro just enough to unbalance my cramponed feet. I crossed as quickly as possible while Grant kept the rope taught in case the unfortunate should happen.
The final 600 vertical feet was by far the most grueling. It was not because it was any more physically demanding than the other sections but rather it was because I knew the summit was right around the corner and damn-it I wanted to be there. I was excited and when I get excited my pace quickens but the altitude would have none of it.
The last time I summited Rainier the wind was hurling me around like a plastic bag in a midwestern parking lot. This time the sun was out, the breeze was tempered and when I reclined against my pack I actually dozed off for a minute. I was much like my dog laying in the sun without a care in the world. We could only enjoy the summit of Rainier so long though because with each passing minute the sun was slushifying the snow that much more. After a few obligatory hero shots Grant and I started what would be a very long descent.
As the sun rose higher in the sky the temperature shot up. I had stripped to a thin fleece and if I would not have been roasted by the sun I would have taken that off too. We plodded down the Rainier’s seemingly endless switch backs. With each turn the snow became slushier and the rapidly decaying quality of the route slowed our progress considerably.
By the time we reached the top of the cleaver the snow was getting dangerously slick. Instead of continuing on snow we moved to the choss that passes for rock on a volcano. We quickly regretted that decision but there was not much to do after we had committed to it. Eventually we made it down the cleaver but not until I made a silent promise to never again climb volcanic scree that is not covered in ice.
We had been out of water for a couple of hours by the time we made it to the bottom of the cleaver. My energy levels were seriously depleted and all I wanted to do was get back to my sleeping bag at Camp Muir. Unfortunately the most dangerous section of the route was still ahead of us and I needed to suck it up.
The Emmons Shoulder, with its broken up snow bridges, had scared me on the way up when it was still frozen from the cold night. By now the sun had been up for five or six hours and had considerably weakened the already structurally unsound crossing. I told Grant to keep the rope especially taught through this section and I moved very cautiously. I made sure each step was placed on the strongest parts of the snow. Even with this diligence I took a step that collapsed a section of a bridge. I didn’t punch through but when I was a few feet beyond that bridge I saw that one of my footprints had disappeared into the abyss. I could see that we were walking over a monstrous ice cavern system and a fall would be disastrous.
Once I realized just how weak the snow was I started probing the strength of the bridges with my ice ax for each step. I’ll admit it, I was spooked almost to the point of being scared. The final obstacle was a crevasse crossing unlike any I’ve ever seen. If you imagine two diving boards facing each other but not touching you’ll have a good idea of how precarious the crossings was. I inched my way towards the crossing, probing the strength on my side and visually checking the other. I made it, it held, but we we’re not through this obstacle yet because Grant still had to cross.
While we were moving through this section Grant and I had clipped in to the hand lines to provide a little bit of security. Whether this security was real or imaginary is debatable but that is what we did. I made sure as Grant moved I kept the rope taught without unbalancing him. He probed his way out to the crossing and I was ready for anything.
Grant announced he was crossing , there was a pause, and then a loud, frightened “ohh shiiiit” came from behind me. My reaction was exactly that, a reaction. I didn’t think or feel or use any part of my higher brain. I dove through the ground and I mean through because I was planting my ax as deep as it would go. My feet were set, my elbows tight to my body and my ax buried but the rope never tensioned. Grant had been thrown off balance while crossing because he didn’t unclip from the hand line. His fear filled “ohh shiiiit” was not from the snow bridge collapsing but from an awkward yank on his harness.
The adrenaline coursing through my veins did not know that it had been a false alarm and it continued to put me in a state of hyper-attentiveness. I can not describe the exact emotion I felt because it was not one in particular. I was not happy that it was a false alarm, or scared that I could have died, or even proud that I did exactly what I had trained myself to do. I was overwhelmed by raw, unfiltered emotion in a way that has never happened before.
After that we made it back without major incident. We had left at 2AM and returned to Camp Muir a little after 1PM. It had taken just as long to get down the mountain as it had taken to get up but that is what it required to do so safely. It was a good climb but it was good to be back too.
From the comfort of my couch I can look back and see that there are a number of things I should have done differently on this trip. The first is to take a third person. My days of two person glacier travel are done. Three people to a rope team really is a minimum unless there is a compelling reason not to. Additionally I would have started our summit bid at 12:30 instead of 2 to cross more snow when it is firm.