Scott Heinz is in an intermission between work and school and asked if I was interested in Liberty Ridge. It was "in" and the weather was looking good. We decided to give it a go based on the current conditions. This was a pretty exciting prospect, as it was in the book "Fifty Classic Climbs in North America." We also knew that neither of us had been training to do Mount Rainier and this would be the toughest route yet we would do on the mountain.
The plan was to do the climb in three days with camps at Curtis Ridge and Thumb Rock. We would carry over the summit and descend the Emmons Glacier to return to the car on the third day. We left Seattle casually at 7am our first day and were registering with the ranger a few hours later. We drove out to the White River campground and geared up for our hike in.
The hike in was pleasant on a few miles of washed out trail before regaining the unwashed portion. Just before the Glacier Basin Camp, there was some patchy snow, and virtually all campsites in the camp had snow where you would pitch a tent. We headed out into the basin and took a final rest before getting onto the snow for the trudge up to St. Elmo's Pass. When we went to put our packs back on we noticed plenty of insects running around and some were on our gear. When we got onto the snow, they were everywhere. After a while they dissipated. We then hiked up to St. Elmo's where we took another break before roping up to cross the Winthrop Glacier. We scouted views of the glacier for the best travel option and thought crossing high would work best, but we opted to follow the boot tracks a bit lower. At some point the tracks disappeared, and there was a set of fresher tracks that we followed which brought us much lower to avoid the crevasses which resulted in us having to head uphill to regain the track onto Curtis Ridge. After crossing, it looks like the high route would have worked just fine with a little bit of dropping down on the glacier before heading up to the ridge.
We remained roped up for a bit on Curtis Ridge before deciding that the rope was hindering our progress. Our route finding and late day snow conditions were hindering our progress as well. We complained about our heavy three day packs and wondered how people make it to camp in five hours. We eventually made our way to the western side of the ridge and located a camp at around 7200'. After setting up camp, I hiked around to see if there were better camps, but it appears we got the biggest and best. We had our dinner and lounged around as we had arrived at camp early enough to have such a luxury. Our plan was to wake up in the morning and take the hike up to Thumb Rock for our next camp, hoping to arrive around noon.
We awoke pleasantly around 7am and ate breakfast and broke camp. In short time we were getting on the Carbon Glacier across a marginal crevasse. Navigation across the Carbon Glacier was a bit more straightforward than on the Winthrop. Although it seemed like there were more longitudinal crevasses on the glacier. I did poke a leg through a snow bridge to my knee at one point as well in an area that did not look suspicious. Then we had to navigate through a small icefall to gain the upper glacier. Scott led across it and belayed me up as he feared the small bridge might collapse and pull him off. It was still morning, but the snow was getting soft in the warm temperatures.
After the belay I led off toward the next crux of gaining the ridge. From farther away it appeared there would be a bergschrund to cross. As I headed up around a corner, I heard Scott yelp. I brought him in to the relative safety of the area I was in and he explained why. He had punctured his ankle with a crampon point while post holing in the soft snow. He fixed it up while we made the decision whether or not to continue. While debating a solo skier passed by and told us the snow did not freeze overnight, and he decided to head down rather than risk going higher than Thumb Rock. We made a decision to continue and made our way through the remaining crevasses to gain the ridge around 9200'.
We chose to gain the ridge low because there appeared to be a bigger bergschrund issue gaining it higher. Not to mention exposing ourselves to more rockfall and icefall from above. However, this path we opted for had its own issues. After our initial trivial crossing of a moat on a snow bridge, we ascended a steep snow slope to arrive on loose volcanic rock. Scott, above me, sent a few softball sized pieces whizzing down past me. I reached him and we removed the rope and started a rising traverse on the snow passing through several more loose wet rock bands before reaching the final slope under Thumb Rock. The snow was soft and we plugged away at the 35° or steeper slope before eventually attaining the col between Thumb Rock and the next higher unnamed gendarme.
We looked at our bivy options and noticed that all the dug out platforms had rockfall on them. And bowling ball sized at that. Scott looked at me and was unhappy. He told me he would rather be anywhere else tonight than sleeping between two crumbly gendarmes. I told him there was no way I was going down and across the belayed snow bridge in the height of the day's heat. We decided at a minimum to stay until 6pm. (It was one or two at the time.) At first, we melted snow for water. Once we had our fill, we began work on improving the platform we liked the best by making the uphill wall higher, and the catching trench deeper above the wall. This was going well until the shovel broke. We managed to finish our engineering project wielding a handleless shovel and an ice ax, but it took most of the afternoon.
After not noticing any significant rockfall while digging, we felt a little more safe. It appeared that the warm temps and soft snow were on our side as none of the rock falling off the higher gendarme made it a significant distance in the soft snow. We were going to stay until midnight to test the snow to see if it firmed up enough to make the summit push. We ate dinner and bedded down around 7pm.
Neither of us were sleeping as the wind picked up and the sun started setting. Oh, and we both didn't want to fall asleep and be killed by rockfall in our slumber. We tried to rest placing our arms around our heads to protect from rocks. Around 8pm a couple arrived after making the push from the trail head in one day. We chatted with them a bit, before attempting to sleep again. I think I eventually slept after it got dark, but Scott did not. I awoke about 10-15 minutes before our midnight alarm and I was very cold. I tried to get back to sleep without reaching out of the sleeping bag to get more layers when the alarm went off.
We got dressed quickly and tested the snow. It seemed quite firm, but Scott's ankle that he had punctured was acting up. We sat in the tent eating wearing all our clothes. I gave Scott some ibuprofen. We made a choice to go for it and started breaking camp. It was probably close to 2am by the time we finally headed off in the darkness.
We opted to leave with two "tools" out and do running belays up from camp. This may not have been wholly necessary, but we felt safer doing it. There were a few icy spots where I was able to place screws down low, so it was reassuring to have the rope on and not be soloing. The angle wasn't so steep that soloing wasn't out of the equation though.
We had hoped to do 500' of vertical in an hour, but due to lack of sleep and heavy bags, we were averaging 300-400'. The sun started casting a glow on the mountain before 4am and broke the horizon a bit before 5:30am with spectacular color. This is where I really enjoyed the route. The views were amazing as well as our location. The upper ridge is aesthetic and should be done in daylight. The climbing was easy and the ice step was getting closer to view. We continued upward following a boot pack laid by others before us. We stopped a bit to watch a huge icefall from the Liberty Cap Glacier go sliding down to the Carbon Glacier. We marched upward.
The wind was picking up. Above 13000' where the slope angle eases off, is where the wind really made itself known. We anticipated an easy trudge across a lower angle slope before reaching the ice step. With the wind (predicted to be in the 40's) the trek became just an effort to stand up. It was around 9:30 am and we set a belay so Scott could lead out on the step. He led up and over and brought me up. I had put on my poofy jacket to belay, but could not take it off to continue climbing. It was a shame. Prior to the wind I felt I had properly dressed for the climb. The climbing was not too difficult, but the wind, lack of sleep and heavy packs made the WI2 feel much more difficult than it really was.
I led out on a short pitch of ice traverse and brought Scott in. We hoped to simul climb to the Liberty Cap summit from there, but he stopped on the next slope and set a belay. There was a short pitch of ice that had to be climbed to reach the ridge to the top. I lead through the rest of the ice and decided to set a belay just below the ridge to avoid the worsening wind. (By now what was exposed of my face was getting pelted with spin drift.) This was increased by the couple catching and passing us creating more loose snow to blow around. I brought Scott up and he headed to the ridge. He attempted to yell something to me, but I could not hear. I could barely look in his direction due to the wind. He was maybe thirty feet away. I waved at him to continue and he disappeared over the ridge.
The rope went tight and I followed it. I reached his location where he asked me if it was fine if we did not summit. I told him I'd do anything to get out of the wind. (I had half crawled to his location just to not get blown over.) We walked parallel to the ridge missing the Liberty Cap summit by maybe twenty five feet. Around the corner, the wind stopped. We sat and relaxed and had lunch (it was now Noon.) Scott was sure it was 4pm. This was our first real break since leaving camp, and our first attempt to eat or drink since the wind started four or more hours earlier. A few clouds blew around the summit and I suggested we leave immediately as not to get caught in a lenticular white out like I did last year.
We hiked down to the top of the Emmons Glacier and followed a boot path to descend. The going was much easier as we were heading downhill and out of the wind. There were no scary snowbridges and soon we were on an open slope plunge stepping down. This became tedious and we stopped to remove our crampons for some roped glissading. We made it to Camp Sherman around 2:30pm and stopped for a break and to change into shorts. We hustled as best we could out the InterGlacier before reaching the trail and hiking out.
One the way out we ran into folks telling us to head back up the trail. There was a beautiful black bear heading up it. After some confusion and tense moments, the bear left the trail and we made a hasty pass of it down the trail. The rest of the hike out was uneventful.
Although arduous, this was a great trip. While I am not sure what would have made this route a "50 Classics" it was a very nice route for the upper portion. The conditions on the lower portion were miserable. Technically the route was easy. I do not feel there was a slope above 40° except for the ice step. It was also made easier for us by previous parties as we mostly followed footsteps to the top. It is unlikely a route I'd want to repeat soon, but given time, I would probably reconsider it. It was well suited to my using the Black Diamond Venom ice axes as most of the climbing was using piolet canne. While we minimized dangerous rock and ice fall with the route we took, the lower ridge still seemed a bit sketchy. It was very interesting to be out on a side of the mountain that most people do not venture to. Watching the Willis Wall slough off rock and snow repeatedly was powerful and wild. The views were fantastic. It was nice having some solitude that you do not see on the dog routes on Mount Rainier. The winds at the summit were just awful. (Once again proving that wind is my least favorite weather.) Telemetry from the mountain displayed winds of 40mph at 10000', so it wouldn't surprise me if the wind was blowing more than 60mph. It was hard to walk without having one ice ax touching the snow at all times.
In other news, I continued the ginkgo experiment and took ginkgo capsules during the climb (about 1000mg/day.) This really seemed to work to combat AMS as I never experienced a headache or dizziness. I did feel fatigued and lethargic, but I did not eat or drink much on summit day, so it is hard to blame solely on altitude. I will continue to use the ginkgo on trips where I will be going above 8000' for longer periods of time.