Mon, Jul 2, 2012
I had first climbed Mt. Rainier more than ten years earlier, an overnight effort that was self-guided with a group of five. For the last 8-9 years I've wanted to go back and see if I could manage it as a dayhike, but various reasons cropped up to postpone it from one year to the next. Weather and circumstance finally came together as Adam and I awoke at 10p in our Motel in Woodland, several hours drive from Rainier. We dressed and breakfasted on whatever food we had about the motel. Our plan was to start from the Paradise parking lot at midnight. Because we had not visited the park during daylight hours, we had not procurred a permit which is required for anyone ascending past Muir Camp, about halfway up the mountain. We figured our chances of being questioned before reaching the summit were remote. The way down would be in broad daylight which would make our chances higher, possibly significantly so, but we were prepared to deal with the consequences - getting to the summit was more important than not getting caught.
There were a handful of cars in the parking lot when we arrived around the appointed midnight hour. A nearly full moon was high in the sky casting a glow on Rainier and the surrounding terrain. Low clouds hovered in the valley to the south with a thin layer of cirrus clouds high above the summit of Rainier. It was 12:30p before we had our gear together and were heading out. There was snow right down to the parking lot and some ice on the asphalt, but little snow on the trail itself as we started out. In addition to some extra clothing and 4 quarts of gatorade, I carried some pickets, deadmen, ice screws, pulleys, harness, crampons, axe and other assorted gear for roped travel. Adam carried the rope along with some of the same individual gear. Much of this stuff would be unneeded except in the case of crevase rescue which was unlikely on the well-marked Disappointment Cleaver route. But it seemed we might fare better when nabbed by rangers if at least we were properly outfitted.
When we reached the Muir Snowfield we found conditions solid. The mix of snow and rock had given way to all snow. It had frozen over for the night making the ascent far less tedious than it is around midday when all is a slushfest on this south-facing route. There were several sections that were steep enough to warrant the use of crampons, but we were too lazy to stop and put them on and dealt with the dangers of a fall by consoling ourselves that the runnout was clear of rocks for the several hundred feet we'd careen down the mountainside. We made excellent time, climbing 4,000ft and reaching the Muir Hut at the top of the Muir Snowfield in three hours.
The Muir Hut was constructed in 1921 by the Park Service. Built of stone and measuring 12ft x 25ft, it can accomodate 20-25 persons in two rows of bunks on either side with an isle down the middle. One section has cabinets and shelving built against the wall to allow food prep and storage in cramped conditions. As it is available to the public on a first-come, first-served basis and does not have a regular overseerer, it is usually in disarray with gear piled haphazardly about the place. Nearby is a slightly smaller structure built by the Mountaineers in 1916 and currently used by RMI guides and clients. Between the two is a pit toilet that must be one of the most god-awful smelling places on the planet. I slept in the Muir Hut on two previous occasions, but with all the coming and going at odd hours, neither was a particularly good night's sleep.
It was now 3:30a, and all was quiet about the rustic stone building. Those that planned to head for the summit had all left by this time, along with the guided RMI groups that stayed in the plusher accomodations next door. A line of lights could be seen heading across the Cowlitz Glacier, another group beyond that on the rocky headwall above Cathedral Rocks. We went inside to cache a quart of drink and to change into warmer clothing as the temperature had steadily dropped over the last several hours. All was not quiet within, some climbers moving fitfully within their sleeping bags, having either chosen not to climb this evening or perhaps having climbed the previous day, waiting to head down in the morning - or like me on my first visit in 1992, had just come to spend the night in the hut. We tried to be quiet to reduce the disturbance, but with so much gear lying around the tables and floor it was impossible to not bang stuff here and there and be a general nuisance. After getting all his clothes on, Adam decided he needed to use the toilet, so off it all came again and out he went to use the facility. Fifteen minutes later he returned with a horrific story of the foulest smells he'd ever encountered. I laughed and told him he probably deserved it, but wondered why he hadn't learned to breath with his mouth and avoid the stench altogether.
Outside sometime later, we got out our ropes and rescue gear, tying ourselves together about 20ft apart and coiling the remaining rope in equal portions over our shoulders. Gear and GPS were clipped to various points outside. All of this was described in a few sentences above, but the reality was that we burned through almost an hour before we were ready to leave Muir Camp. I was not particularly happy with Adam on this point, but in fairness he was new to roped travel and could not help but struggle some in getting everything in its place. The indecision about the potty break was just a part of this. It was nearly 4:30a before we were ready to head out once again.
The route from this point on is well-marked by wands, fixed ropes in places, and a deep boot track across the glaciers. It would have been impossible to get lost without a dump of new snow to obliterate the tracks. It was growing light out steadily now though it was still before 5a - the sun rises ever so early in summertime this far north. We crossed the Cowlitz Glacier in half an hour, moving to the steeper snow-free scramble across the Cathedral Rocks. Somehow Adam managed to entangle the extra rope about himself and we needed to pause to give him some time to organize it again. The eastern sky was turning shades of orange about the impressive summit of Little Tahoma that sticks out of the eastern slope of Rainier. I busied myself with some camera shots of the impending daybreak while Adam worked on the rope business. Eventually he got things squared away and we started across the Ingraham Glacier towards Disappointment Cleaver.
Sunrise came at 5:12a, the sun making an ever so brief appearance before slipping behind the high clouds. It was out just long enough to give a pinkish glow to the glaciers on this side of Rainier. We soon came across the yellow and gray tents of the RMI group that had camped on the Ingraham Glacier. They certainly had a fine view of Little Tahoma and the eastern stretch of the state, but I wouldn't have cherished the memory of spending a cold night in one of them. By 5:40a we had crossed the second glacier and started up on the cleaver. This was the steepest part of the entire route, along which were found the fixed ropes placed by the RMI guides on a semi-permanent basis. For the safest possible transit, one would normally clip to the rope with a carabiner tied to a sling connected to a harness. Or as we did, one could use the rope as a handline where needed, trying not to step on the rope with crampons. We passed another party of two near the top of the cleaver. They were carrying skis and snowboard, planning to make a much quicker descent down the mountain than the rest of us. They thought there were doing well to not be the last ones up the mountain from Muir Camp until they found we had started from Paradise.
We took a short break at the top of the cleaver at a flat spot where the Ingraham and Emmons Glaciers come together. While the Ingraham Glacier has its own share of crevases, the Emmons Glacier is a much more serious affair. Fortunately the upper portion of the glacier where we would travel was relatively free of these large gaps, making for a much easier line of ascent. Still, wands were used here to mark the traveled route to keep folks from wandering off and 'discovering' hidden crevases. It was 7a before we caught up with the first of the RMI groups. Roped together as a party of seven to ten, they typically had one guide in front and second bringing up the rear. In order to pass them we hiked outside the boot track on the inside, cutting a switchback in order to pass more quickly.
There were several other parties of two and a few solo travelers along with the two RMI groups we encountered, probably a total of 30 folks or so all told making a bid up the DC route. This was the last group that we passed going up, however. The higher we went the more strongly the wind began to blow and it seems that this is what had most of the other groups turning back shortly thereafter. I'd been in winds on Shasta before that literally knocked you down and had some idea what a strong wind could do. But this was far from reaching that point and did not really deter us as we pressed on. The other groups were returning as we spent the next hour going ever higher to reach the crater rim. It was now 8:20a, we had the whole upper mountain to ourselves, and it was blowing hard. Face masks and goggles were needed to keep the blowing ice crystals from cutting our face. It was damned cold as we crossed the crater to the highpoint another 20 minutes away.
The visibility was good, but it was too windy to enjoy the summit in a more casual manner as we might have liked. It was 8:40a now, still early in the day and I'd hoped we might make an extra effort to reach Liberty Cap about a mile and half distance. But by now my fingers were barely useable and my main focus was getting them warmer back below the crater rim. So we snapped a handful of photos of the views (mostly snow in all directions) and ourselves before beating a hasty retreat. We met the skier/snowboarder pair at the crater rim, talking briefly in short, curt phrases over the howling wind. They planned to stash their skis and board here and head to the summit, but wanted first to know in which direction they might find it. They were the only others we knew to make the summit this day.
Below the rim, it did not take long get ourselves into more comfortable conditions with considerably less wind. We began to remove some of the excess clothing and before 10a things were more pleasant once again. We stopped for a longer break to allow me to relieve myself after holding everything in for the last hour. Meanwhile, Adam rearranged his gear once more and before we were ready to head down he had himself all dolled up and looking like a proper mountaineer. We made great time heading down, now moving much more efficiently as a roped pair with the added advantage of having gravity on our side. Adam led all the way back to Muir Camp while I took my turn at managing the rope from behind as second. As we crossed the Ingraham Glacier we found two RMI groups, one at the tents presumably collecting their gear to descend further, the other taking a break off to the side (this group had probably spent the night at Muir Camp, or may have been waiting for the first group to clear out their gear before retrieving their own). Not ten minutes after passing this second group we started down Cathedral Rocks and came upon a third, larger RMI group on their way to the tents on the glacier - they might have to wait around a bit for the previous groups to finish packing up. It was clear that RMI had this Rainier thing down quite well, rotating in two groups each day, at least.
While we crossed the Cowlitz Glacier I took notice that Adam was struggling to keep his pants up. This was nothing new - the low pants thing has been a signature of his for as long as I've known him, but I couldn't understand why he would be ok with this inconvenient clothing fashion on a mountaineering outing. It occurred to me that he has been living this fashion trend probably since his teen years and never actually learned how to use a belt. Here he was wearing a climbing harness which ought to doubly act as a belt to keep his pants on, and he was still struggling to keep them from falling down. Of course I gave him a hard time about this and threatened to expose him on the Internet. This became a source of some concern for him as he now made an extra effort to keep his pants up and deny me the damning photo op I was looking for.
We returned to Muir Camp not long after 11a. We packed up the rope and gear, retrieved our cached stuff from inside the hut, and started down as yet another RMI group headed across the Cowlitz Glacier (presumably to join the other RMI group camping on the Ingraham Glacier). Descending the Muir Snowfield was a mix of fun and tedious. In places it was steep enough to take advantage of several glissade paths to speed up the descent. Most of the time it was not steep enough to glissade and much too slushy and chewed up from all the climbers that it became somewhat of a wonder that we didn't twist a knee or ankle in the awkwardness of the descent. There were many others coming up the snowfield at this time, both overnighters and day visitors. It seemed far less pleasant for them as well with all the mush, certainly more work than we had found coming up over the frozen snow at night.
It was after noon when I reached the end of the trail near the Visitor Center. I waited here among the general bustle of Paradise at midday, Adam about ten minutes behind me. Our boots were soaked through by this time but it mattered little since we had a dry change of shoes in the car a short distance away. After changing out of our wet stuff and making ourselves more comfortable, we stopped by the Visitor Center so Adam could get yet another stamp in his NPS Passport. Our mascot Trunko was along make sure he got the right one, and to play on the diorama they had on display in the main room. It's possible he is the first to stand on the summits of both the diorama and the actual mountain. Thus ended our Rainier dayhike adventure - 12h15m CTC, not a bad showing at all and a pretty fun time, too.
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