~9000' Elevation Gain
11 Miles RT
Josh had been planning a climb of Rainier for the week after Memorial Day because he had taken the time off. He asked me if I still didn't have a job if I would come along. Well the time had come, and I still did not have a job. So we were going to do it. At the final planning meeting it appeared the two Matts would not be able to make it and that just Josh, Zach and myself would be climbing on a Thursday/Friday. This made for easier rope management, but a bummer that the Matts could not join us. (It also meant we wouldn't have two Woofers with us.)
So the night before the climb, Steve called and asked if we were bringing floatation. I told him we weren't, but sent an email to Josh and Zach to bring snowshoes in case we wanted them. The freeze levels were supposed to be around 12000' for Thursday/Friday and this did not mean solid good crampon snow.
At the Paradise parking lot we opted to leave the snowshoes in the car. I'm still not sure this was a bad idea, but more on that later. We signed in at the ranger station and started hiking up to Glacier Vista to drop down onto the Nisqually Glacier. The snow was soft and deep, but we stayed in previous steps to manage the conditions. Once roped up and on the Nisqually, we headed for the early season "direct" route that the Mt. Rainier Climbing Blog said was still in. This involved a suspect snow bridge over a house swallowing crevasse. There were plenty of tracks across the bridge, but it appeared disconnected on both edges of the crevasse. This combined with the fact that the far east and west ends of the bridge had already collapsed into the crevasse caused us to belay across the bridge in the hot sun where the bridge appeared most narrow and well connected. After this minor setback we continued on our way to camp on the east edge of the Wilson Glacier around 9200'.
As the day got later, and we were no longer on well trampled paths, the snow got deeper. We started up the slopes to our camp and probably took an hour to move 200-300 vertical feet to the area where we decided to make camp. We were at 8900' but couldn't take any more wallowing in deep snow. There were numerous bivy sites on the ridge, but none really appeared to accept the tent we had. After walking the ridge and inspecting sites, we decided to use a reasonably flat area near a snow pile to make a flat platform with snow over the jagged loose rock. We then set about melting snow, eating and getting ready for the summit push. We finally laid down around 8pm and set our alarms for 11:30pm, with the hope that the snow would be more solid. Things were looking good for a refreeze, as the sun was not fully set, and the temp had dropped from 57°F to 42°F from when we got to camp to when we went to bed.
We had two alarm failures but Zach's alarm worked and we ended up waking around midnight. It was 32°F in the tent, and we readied ourselves for the climb. We were under way just before 1am and started our traverse to the finger. The snow was variable. Sections were bulletproof, while others were punching in mid-calf. In the darkness of night under headlamp, we did not traverse far enough and climbed some snow slopes west of the finger before topping out to a steep drop above the Nisqually Glacier. At some point above 9000' we were greeted by a cascade fox. It startled me and both Zach and Josh thought there was rockfall or some other hazard. The fox investigated us at a distance of about 15' and then went on its way. Perhaps to tell us that we were off route. By this time, the sun already was shining some modest light on the mountain and we were able to find our way into the correct couloir and head up.
Things got easier once we did not have to navigate by head lamp. Above the Fuhrer Finger, we mostly followed ski tracks out onto the upper Nisqually Glacier. This is not exactly the correct route, but staying on the west edge of the Glacier did not have as much appeal. We probably added 1/4 to 1/2 mile onto our trip heading out to the Nisqually, but it was enjoyable and fairly decent climbing. We were all feeling the effects of four hours of sleep, and altitude and our progress was slowing. (Perhaps too, the negative mental effects of having to down climb 400'+ vertical earlier when off route.) Progress was slow and steady up the Nisqually and we took short breaks hourly to rest. In the late morning, the crater rim came in sight. The last 300' seemed to take forever, and we finally made the crater rim where the wind was blowing. (Isn't it always?) I wanted to drop into the crater to get out of the wind. We dropped into the crater where I told Josh and Zach to proceed to the summit while I took the time to "blue bag."
During this time, the winds picked up. By the time Josh and Zach were off the summit and I was heading to them at the rim, we were in near white out conditions. My thoughts went to spending a night in a steam cave. Well, at least we were heading down. Foolishly we did not place wands on the way up as the forecast was good, and it was very clear on the way up. I led our rope down attempting to follow footsteps and ski tracks as best I could. I also tried to look for landmarks and crevasses we had encountered on the way up at various elevations. Occasionally, the clouds would break and I could see we were on generally the right track. Around 12500' we got under the clouds and were back in blue skies again with our uphill track obvious in the snow. We would later learn from observers at Paradise that a lenticular had formed over the summit for a few hours.
Once lower on the mountain the snow got continually softer. We had originally chosen to descend the Fuhrer Finger route as the ranger at Paradise told us descending the Kautz would involve some steep snow/ice down climbing or a few rappels. Fortunately, the snow was soft enough for good plunge stepping down the couloir. After the hourglass and near the bottom, the snow became deep mash potatoes which we struggled to descend in. (The top half of the Fuhrer Finger took less than a half hour to descend. I'm pretty sure it took another hour and a quarter for the bottom half to camp.) The snow got worse to travel in and we slowly wallowed back to camp setting off numerous small wet slides on our way there.
Once at camp, we contemplated staying until the snow hardened up because we were all exhausted from our thigh deep traverse back from the finger. We lounged around and melted some snow for water. We finally made a decision to "go for it" and started packing up to leave camp.
We left camp around 6pm and started down. The first section of snow from camp Josh and Zach glissaded while I plunge stepped down. We then roped up and headed down the Wilson Glacier. We decided to take a more west trajectory down as we did not want to deal with the scary huge crevasse we belayed over to get out. So we followed a path down that led us to a nice snow ramp at the west edge of the lower Nisqually Glacier. In no time, we were stomping in other's tracks across the lower Nisqually with the 400' climb back up to Glacier Vista looming before us. The snow on the lower mountain was not as bad as near our camp and we made good time. We were back at Paradise a little less than three hours after we left camp, but it was around 9pm. We hit the rest room, and then signed out at the climbing station before drinking some victory home brew compliments of Josh and then driving out.
Overall a great experience. Other than a couple of backcountry skiers from NY that shared our camping area, we did not see anyone on our summit day on the upper mountain. We had the summit to ourselves as well as the route. Snow conditions were not ideal for this climb, but were satisfactory enough to be successful. I will forever contemplate the snowshoe decision, but I personally always feel like the extra weight on the feet is not worth the reduced aggravation of post-holing. I'm not sure which wastes more energy though. It is always surprising to me how much altitude effects me. I did have a headache, and some weird stomach feelings. But having had those stomach feelings persist much through the following day, leads me to believe that both symptoms were more related to dehydration than altitude.
Also, I did not feel this route was technically more difficult than the Disappointment Cleaver route. Route finding is more difficult, and I guess the steeper snow in the couloir is more challenging, but not significantly so. (I'd rather go up the steep snow than walk on the decaying cleaver any day.) I can also see why people ski it. I could see myself skiing the couloir, but the upper mountain has too many large holes that I am not sure I want to try and avoid.) One aspect that is definitely more difficult is that summit day involves more elevation when climbing The Fuhrer Finger. Having high camp at a lowly 8900' did not allow for much acclimatization, and made a for a 5500' summit day. I'm really glad to have climbed this route, as it gave me a new appreciation for Mount Rainier. Next time, I'll do some altitude training shortly before, so I am not as greatly affected.