Tag Archives: Mt Rainier

Disappointment Cleaver – Mt Rainier – September 2011

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.


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Another Go at the Disappointment Cleaver on Rainier

I had every intention of climbing Mt Rainier this Labor Day weekend but absolutely no expectation to summit.  I say this because NOAA issued a winter storm morning that called for 1-2 feet of snow to be dumped above 7,000′ and high winds.

With a forecast like that why would I even want to climb Rainier?  The simple reason was a friend, Grant, was coming up from Vegas and had been training for months.  Now that I am a local I can opt to pass on attempting a climb but when you buy a $300 plane ticket you and train for months you need to at least give it a try.

Knowing the nasty forecast I was justifiably nervous.  I pulled out my Sub-Zero puffy, my winter gloves and my incredibly versatile Turtle Fur.  I expected white out conditions on the “summit day” so I ran to Home Depot and picked up some bamboo and red duct tape to make a boat load of wands.  And preparing for a worst case scenario of hanging out in a tent for a few days I picked up some extra fuel at REI.  With my winter gear packed and Grant’s GPS I knew we could get up and down safely no matter the conditions.

On Saturday we hiked to Camp Muir in what started out as rain at Paradise, then turned to fog around Moon Rocks and then finally sleet on the upper snowfield.  Visibility was relatively good and navigating the crevasse field on the upper snowfield was easy.  IMG had wanded a route through the field but their wands were few and far between.  I also saw a guided group wanding another route but they seemed a little lost and I wasn’t filled with confidence by their route finding.

Since I expected a foot or two of the fresh powdery stuff to be hiding the small crevasses on the Muir snowfield I supplemented IMG’s wanding with my own and Grant made sure to set waypoints every 15 minutes or so.

The week prior Camp Muir had been bustling.  The weather was gorgeous and it seemed everybody and their brother was up there.  This week, in the nasty weather, there was three other independent climbers in the hut.  I say independent because IMG decided that they were not going to camp out at Ingraham Flats but were going to shack up at Camp Muir.

I have no problem with people being guided up a mountain.  If that is what you want to do, who am I to judge?  What I do have a problem with is some of the shenanigans that clients pull due to their inexperience.  I think that one of the first things guides teach their clients is headlamp etiquette.  If there are nine other headlamps turned on you probably don’t need yours to tie your boots.  Or another perpetually funny thing that clients do is to put on their crampons while still inside the hut and then walk around for 20 minutes waking everyone up with their crunching.

On what was supposed to be summit day the IMG guide woke up his clients with a mighty yell at 12:30 for a 2 AM departure.  They all huddled around the big thermos of hot water and took ages getting dressed and asking questions like “should I wear my liner gloves?”  And of course there were a dozen high-beamed headlamps going the entire time.

At 1:30 AM I took a quick look outside and was surprised to see that I could actually see.  I thought for a moment that we just might be able to climb.  Grant and I were going to tuck in behind one of the guided parties to take advantage of their boot path and decided we were not going to leave ’til about 3 AM.  By the time 3 AM rolled around the weather had blown in and it was pretty clear that we were not going anywhere.

If you’ve never been to Camp Muir you should know that it is on a ridge.  As a result when it is windy on Rainier it is really windy at Camp Muir and with wind comes spindrift.  Owing to the layout of the camp the spindrift piles up pretty quickly in front of the outhouses which creates the very un-fun task of digging out the toilet.  Since it was pretty windy at Camp Muir and spindrift was piling up quickly there was a real possibility of getting stuck in the outhouse.  Maybe this is too much info but after only a minute or two inside I had to give the door my best linebacker shoulder plow to be able to squeeze out.

Getting down from Muir promised to be fun because by mid-morning a foot of snow had covered the snowfield and had hidden the crevasses.  This was in addition to it being semi-whiteout.  I could have said it was epic or gnarly but in actuality it was quite boring.  With adequate wanding, regular GPS waypoints and a little common sense it went without a hitch.

Nasty weather is not something I take lightly especially on a big mountain like Rainier.  I refuse to become a statistic in Accidents in NA Mountaineering especially by getting killed due to something stupid like hypothermia.  With a little forethought and a bit of common sense this little adventure was just a little adventure and not a full on epic.

Previous Trip Reports (Successful Trip) (Botched Trip) (Rainier Gear List – for the successful trip)

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.