I led the team around a crevasse and then up a firm slope. For the first time, the need to keep all crampon points in the snow made sense. We were at about 12,000’ on Mt. Rainier on the Emmons route. The recent warm weather had caused the route to degrade, and the covid-19 pandemic kept guides off the route and the crowds down. The winds and below freezing temps stole any softness away from the snow. This was day two of our attempt on Mount Rainier.
Our trip started the previous day as every summit attempt on the mountain does – at a ranger station, dropping off a permit, and nervously sorting through gear. We had the usual debate of deciding how many shovels to bring, just which stoves we needed, and how many snacks we should try to cram into our bags. (All of them. Always all of them.) We saddled up with 45#+ packs and headed up the comfortable glacier basin trail.
We had originally planned for a three-day climb. When the weather solidified with a storm system coming in Saturday, we made the decision to attempt the climb in two days. At elevation, and with route finding, a two day ascent is a long slog. Just getting to camp is a 7.6mi approach with 4300′ of gain, on snow. It sure is a pretty approach, though. The glacier basin trail is easy walking and affords occasional views of the alpine. The trail along the moraine is good, and, as you gain elevation you are afforded insane views of the foothills and Cascades.
It took us 8 hours to reach Camp Schurman. Here we received our briefing from ranger Kyle. Pit toilets are always better than blue bags, so we all made pit stops before making the final push to camp. We got to camp at around 5:30 or 6pm and settled into chores: building tent platforms, melting 20 liters of water, scarfing down food, and getting the pack ready for the morning.
I finally made it to bed a little after 8pm with alarms set for midnight. The promised winds began, and the wind hitting the tent woke me up about every hour. For the first few times this was fine, since I had plenty of time left to sleep. Then the final wind gust powered wake up came at 11:55pm. Knowing that I had to be up in just a few more minutes, I started the slow process of getting ready. I’m not quick to get ready in the best circumstances, and doing it at midnight after a small nap, in the cold and the dark isn’t any faster. The thought still leaves me exhausted and nauseated.
We started climbing around 1:40am and began the easy walk up the feature known as the corridor. This is the broad ramp that ascends from camp to about 11,400’. This is the most straightforward part of the climb and we made quick work of it. I followed a descent boot path of sorts, jumping out of it to avoid those awkwardly large steps that other climbers always seem to leave.
From here, the route traversed climbers right and we began route finding around seracs and crevasses. The seracs are enormous! While the predominant route walked on top of them, I didn’t like that falls here would be consequential. And, this involved stepping over a pretty wide crack. This type of terrain is exactly why I was interested in climbing Rainier, and this kind of decision making is why I was enthusiastic to climb it without a guide-maintained route.
We kept going, a little right and up. The route steepened, the snow remained firm, and we found several crevasses where the primary route had fallen out recently. The route isn’t as direct as a it was a week or two ago. This area went smoothly and we were able to make good progress.
At around 12,340’, we huddled up during break time. Some folks in our group weren’t doing well. The snow was firm, and the wind was picking up. The rangers had told us that the wind wouldn’t get better. We made the decision to turn around, primarily because of the altitude.
We later learned that few teams had successfully climbed the Emmons route on the 11th. For some teams it was altitude, like us. For others it was the winds. Some teams reported that the winds on the summit were so bad that they couldn’t even stand. One team reported that they found the bergschrund at 13,500′ but couldn’t find a way around it due to wind drifts. I don’t love that so few people reached the summit, but it does make the inevitable later review of the turnaround decision easier. Turn around decisions are personal and turning around in the mountains is always justified. But still, it’s easier when you don’t think you would have been successful because of external factors, too.
The descent was better than we had anticipated on the way up. We were nervous to descend some of the slopes, but the snow was perfect for crampons. The sun had softened the snow just enough that we were able to start kicking some steps, too.
A few years ago, I started the journey of structured training. It, along with losing weight, is starting to work! While carrying a pack isn’t easy, and we weren’t going fast, the all-day, conversational pace is now achievable. I felt fine. I had plenty of energy. Even when we got to camp, a whopping 8 hours after starting, I still had plenty of energy. Those who have climbed with me in the past will recognize that this is a pretty big difference.
We made it back to camp without issue. We ate some food, took a quick nap, and packed up to get out. We made quick work of the interglacier, then, now in trail runners, made quick work of the glacier basin trail.
- 8am – Meet at ranger station
- 9:30am – depart glacier basin trail
- 6:00pm – arrive camp
- 8:15pm – bed time!
- 11:55pm – windy wake-up alarm
- 1:45am – depart camp
- 6:15am – turn around
- 9:30am – back at camp
- 12:00pm – depart camp
- 5:02pm – back at cars
I’m glad I brought my puffy! And I used almost all the (non-technical) gear I brought.
Wrap on Saturday, Mountain house for dinner, bagel with cream cheese (and everything-but-the-bagel seasoning), pizza for lunch. All worked really well.