Ring of Fire: Mt. Rainier
If there is one thing that I have learned this year, it’s that a low snow season doesn’t just mean less pow to shred and fewer GNAR points to rack up, it also means that safety becomes a great concern as well. Especially when attempting to tackle a beast like Mount Rainier. However, you CAN still collect an insanely large amount of smiles. During my recent summit bid of Rainier, my pack was heavy with an overabundance of smiles and laughter.
I was unsure if I would be physically up for Rainier considering I had been on some of our bigger Cascade Mountains every weekend (and some weekdays) for the last 5 weeks. Between this and other work and personal obligations that I had been tackling, I was starting to feel the exhaustion. Luckily, we had an all-star crew lined up with an amazing last minute addition. Carlos Martinez: Portland businessman, husband and all around rad dude, Asit Rathod: Local Portland ski legend, writer, and brand ambassador, Mike Joseph: Portland local father, husband, climbing/mountaineering badass, and the last minute edition Walter Burkhardt: Hood River local, former Nepal mountain guide, Hollywood stunt/rigging specialist and human “Ibex.” We were stacked!
Group messages and even a legitimate conference call to discuss routes, gear, bivy plans and transportation solidified all of the details in the days prior to our convergence. With a little help from park ranger and acquaintance of Asit’s, we decided to make plans to stay in the Camp Muir hut overnight. This would mitigate the need for tents and help lighten our load. We would also learn that both the Disappointment Cleaver (DC) route and Ingraham Direct routes were a bit shoddy due to the low snow year and increased melt off due to sun radiation. Good beta, even if it’s negative, is always appreciated.
Once we arrived at the mountain, we began the tedious work of cross loading gear and filling out our climbing permits. I was sure to inquire with the local park ranger talent as to any recent picnic basket thefts and if so did they have a composite sketch of the suspect(s). Expected my suspicions to be confirmed, I only received a friendly glare that said, “NO” and was sent on my way. Back to the ol’ drawing board with my park ranger jokes…
Packs on our backs, skins on our skis and skis on our feet, we made our way through the open timberline towards Camp Muir. The sun beat down on us like an angry drill instructor on day one of boot camp. Nearly five hours, five thousand feet of vertical and one huge ice fall from a serac on the Nisqually glacier and we were at Muir. As we claimed our sleeping space for the evening and began boiling water and putting down chow, we stepped outside to watch day turn to night and the sun set as the moon rose.
Feeling incredibly small yet unbelievably fortunate, we discussed our route the next morning. We took good beta from a local veteran with plenty of time on this mountain. Due to the unrelenting maze of open crevasses on both the DC and Ingraham Direct routes, we would opt for the more technical and highly exposed Gibraltar Ledges Route. If all went well, this would knock several hours off of the climb. Asit was still pretty exhausted from the day before and opted out of the summit bid. The four of us set our sights for lookers right of Gibraltar Rock. The sheer size of Rainier totally skews your scale and perspective of distance and time. What we thought would take us 45 plus minutes, took us 2 hours. Once we reached the ledges, we understood the description of the exposure. Any mistake or slip would provide a 25-45 foot slide and then a 300+ foot fall to the Nisqually Glacier below. Now walking and mixed climbing on penitentes and kitty litter snow against Gibraltar Rock, we slowly and gingerly made our way through the first crux before we were faced with the next. With Walter and Mike ahead of us slightly, Carlos called out to me to “check out what Walter is doing.” Knowing Walters ability and background, I called out with a half joking, half not, “NO!!!” Chuckling to each other, I peak around the corner at Walter and Mike at the last crux and realize that this is where I would be calling it. Now walking on a steep sloped rock in crampons and faced with climbing boulders and even larger penitentes after that finished by a large ice wall section, I decided that this would be beyond my comfort level. Carlos acknowledged and thanked me for my decision as he too felt the same. We called out to Walter and Mike that we would be calling it. Acknowledging, they advised that they would be going on. Wishing them the best, Carlos and I made our way through the continuously deteriorating snow conditions and ultimately down to Muir. Having made it to just over 12,000 feet. We stopped periodically to look in amazement at the rest of the Cascade Range to include Mt. Adams, St. Helens, Hood and even Jefferson. Amazing.
Once back at Muir, we were treated with beers and smiles by Asit. We began to explain the morning and the deplorable conditions when we looked up to see Walter, followed shortly after by Mike, skiing down from the ledges. They too had made the wise decision to call it a day. No mountain is worth a certain level of risk. Feeling comfortable with all of our decisions, we enjoyed our beers, ate a little food, clicked into our skis and enjoyed the 5,000 feet of vertical back down to our vehicles. Mentally picking out our next ski touring lines, we hooted, hollered and smiled our way down to the parking lot. Fully knowing that no ski mountaineering adventure is complete without good food and good beer, we set our sights on the Copper Creek Inn and Restaurant in Ashford just outside of the park gate. Amazing service, amazing food, tasty beer and some of the biggest smiles and best stories were shared by five amazing friends. We didn’t summit, but we didn’t care.