Leader – John Stevens
Co-leader – Rick Laidlaw
Team – Brandon Freeman, Andy Doig, Per Frost, Doug Laidlaw, Erik Anderson
Itinerary: The Kautz Glacier route, attempted by only about 4% of Rainier climbers.
Day 1 (Jun 23) – Majority of the team arrives around midday and meets up with Michael Bailey, Per Frost, and Andy Doig. After a long wait for our rental vans, we head over to the Red Roof Inn, a popular SSMC launching point, and then grab some wings, tacos, and beer at Sharp’s Roast House. After the obligatory gear checks, we head to REI for last minute gear shopping and then explore the Seattle public market with dinner at Pike’s.
Day 2 (Jun 24) – The team packed up the vans and began the relatively short journey to Mt. Rainier National Park. We stop in the Puyallup area to do some food shopping and then waited for about an hour in traffic at the park entrance. Parking was completely full so we put in a warm up hike from our parking spot a mile away from the Paradise visitor center. Registering for the climb was very straightforward and the park staff shared that the Kautz was in good shape with multiple parties climbing it recently. We wrapped up our day at the Copper Creek Lodge where we spread out, relaxed, and barbecued for dinner. Later that night a line of heavy rain moved in and had me worried about conditions for the 25th.
Day 3 (Jun 25) – Woke up to clouds and damp conditions. During our hour long drive to Paradise, clouds stayed thick. Paradise was socked in with a chilly, breezy fog. We had our last taste of civilization at the Paradise Inn where we had a nice breakfast. A short time later we were on the trail, eager to make our way up the Skyline Trail to Glacier Vista. Perhaps two minutes into the climb, an observant individual noticed we were missing our wands…Mike Bailey was gracious enough to run back to the van and grab them. Brandon excitedly grabbed a pack of wands, he likes wands.
From Glacier Vista we quickly dropped down onto the Nisqually Glacier, where conditions remained challenging with limited visibility. Luckily there were were two parties just ahead of us and we followed their tracks to the base of the fan.
After about 30 minutes climbing the fan, the clouds began to shred apart and we started getting some amazing views of the surrounding terrain. The fan is very similar to climbing in Tuckerman’s Ravine in NH, although it isn’t quite as steep. Granted, the rockfall and crevasse danger is much more threatening.
We topped out on the fan and began a long and meandering sidehill climb through continued fog. There were a couple of climbers ahead of us who seemed to be on the proper route and a couple of bare booters who were all over the place. After some effort, we gained the extended ridgeline below the Wowapety Cleaver and began working our way upwards. The weather kept teasing us as we got higher, with the occasional glimpse of blue skies and change from rain to snow.
Finally, around 1pm, we caught a glimpse of the grand majesty of Mt. Rainier and the Kautz Glacier above us. With our spirits buoyed by the incredible view, we made the final push into intermediate high camp at 9,200′.
Day 4 (Jun 26) – Day 2 of our summit bid began with a leisurely wake up at 7 am followed by a couple hours of climbing in the hot sun up to 10,600′. Mt. Rainier is such a massive peak that the broadness of its slopes belies how relentlessly steep it is. We made it to advanced high camp at 11:30 am and spent the rest of the day melting snow, enjoying the view, and getting our gear ready for an alpine start. The plan was to wake up at 1:00 am for a 2:00 am start.
Day 5 (Jun 27) – Starting under a moonlit sky and stars, we made our way from 10,600′ to 11,200′ in short order. There were two climbers ahead of us who were decamping from Camp Hazard and who made it to the rock step before us. The winds were gusty and they balked initially at the sketchy rappel onto the Kautz. I set up a rappel using one of our ropes, as the fixed lines were in questionable shape, one line was sheared all the way through to the core. The rappel itself was extremely awkward as the cliff juts out, forcing you to lean outwards and risk a nasty pendulum into space. This section took about an hour for all seven of us to successfully navigate.
The two rope teams separated for the mad dash beneath the Kautz Ice Cleaver. This section was strewn with recent ice and rock fall, any piece of which was capable of destroying a human being if both connected at the wrong place at the wrong time. Once we regained our breath from this high altitude sprint, we were pleasantly surprised to find the lower ice crux to be in great condition, with penitentes and intermediate ice steps making for easy climbing. Instead of roping up, I made the decision to have the team solo this 400′ section of snow and ice.
Above the lower ice crux, the teams consolidated and roped up, preparing for the steep upper ice step on the Kautz. I took my team of four up the left hand side of the ice chute and Rick took his team of three straight up the middle. Climbing was brilliant with great footing, I set three ice screws into the steep glacial ice on the left edge as protection. Rick had less luck finding good ice in the center. Rick and I both met up at the steepest point, setting anchors and bringing up our teams. The rope team configuration was something I had never done before, where the climbers tied in near the end of the rope and on extended bytes of rope with butterfly tie-ins. This configuration was very easy to manage and kept all the climbers on the plumb line in case someone slipped while they were on belay.
I brought my team in using a Reverso on a quadalette. After everyone climbed up to the anchor point, I was able to quickly move uphill again to set a 2nd anchor using a picket and hip belay with my butt sitting partially in a baby crevasse. It felt good to be past the steepest part of the climb but I could tell the toll the steep climbing took on the team. The next several hours involved slow upward progress, moving from 11,800 ft at 6 am to 13,000 ft at 8:30 am. The upper Kautz Glacier is not technically demanding and the crevasses at this time of year were not difficult to navigate. However, the combination of exertion and altitude and the gradient of the climb made for a tough slog.
As we climbed I ran into a decision point; cross an ice fall zone above the Wowapety Cleaver and head more directly to the summit, or follow the two climbers ahead of us? The ice fall zone blocked visibility to the path ahead, so I opted to follow the climbers up a very steep headwall to Point Success. Upon examination later, it seems as if many parties cross the ice fall as opposed to the route we took. Descending the Point Success headwall was dangerous later on due to soft snow conditions on very steep terrain.
Regardless, after some yeoman’s work to gain the 14,000′ plateau and one huge snow bridge later, we were within striking distance of the summit. We dropped our packs and headed upwards. Brandon led the way and stood on the summit crest, acting as a beacon for all of us, representing the end point for all of our uphill efforts. I joined Brandon and got an enthusiastic high-five…and had to break the news to him that the summit was still just a tiny bit further….
After five more minutes into our reservoirs of effort and pain tolerance, we made it to the top of Columbia Crest; exhausted, elated, and absolutely relieved to have climbed Mt. Rainier via one of its harder routes.
I was feeling tired on the way down from the summit, but gravity was on our side. What was not on our side were the snow conditions below 14,000′. The bright and warm sun had softened the surface of the Kautz and nearly every footstep blew out as the top two inches of slush slid on top of glacial ice. This combination was treacherous and led to a few team ice axe arrests on the Point Success Headwall. Once below this dangerous incline, we were able to make decent progress to the top of the Kautz Ice Chute. Over the next several hours we performed several zero-thread rappels, including two double-rope rappels. We took our time and made sure everything was backed up with ice screws and that we pulled the correct line upon reaching the next anchor. With inclement weather approaching and moderate snow, we rolled into camp after a long but amazing day.
Day 6 (Jun 28) – After a long and restful night of sleep, we descend in sun and fog. As I’m breaking camp, my brand new Nemo Sonic Zero sleeping bag rolls out of my tent, and proceeds to bounce downhill about a thousand feet. Brandon thinks he sees it stop. On the way down I find the stopping point, an endless crevasse…Brandon leans down to take a look and can see my sleeping bag sitting on a ledge about 50 feet down. Guess we’ll see you in about 7,000 years Mr. Sleeping Bag.
On the traverse above the fan we see what looks like mountain lion tracks? Every step downhill brings us closer to the end of the trip and by noon we are back at Paradise. Tourists stop to take photos of us, blue bags get deposited, and Mike meets us with pizza and beer. We head back to Seattle for a celebration dinner at Metropolitan Grille. Thanks again for buying Rick and I dinner, fellas. We really appreciate it.
Day 7 (Jun 29) – Majority of the team flew back to Boston while Andy, Mike and I drove down to the Timberline Lodge for a Mt. Hood attempt.
Congratulations to all of you – A badass collection of mountaineers and the strongest SSMC team I’ve ever been a part of.
Until next time ~ John Stevens