Redundant Rainier Ropemates
Mount Rainier, Kautz Glacier Route, 7/6-7/8
While Silicon Valley and Seattle sweltered in the heat, a group of four fully redundant climbers decided that Mount Rainier was the place to be. We were: Marcin Porwit (of San Francisco), Marcin (Martin) Sawicki (of Seattle), Steve Rodrigues (of San Francisco as of a week ago), and Steve Van Dien (of Seattle). With 2 Steve's, 2 Marcin's, 2 Seattleites, and 2 San Franciscans, we figured that calamity could befall half the group and we'd still be successful.
Our objective was the Kautz Glacier route on Mount Rainier, relatively easy but not a dog route, and not the choice of the steady stream of people that marks the Disappointment Cleaver route that the Rainier guide service uses. Its primary challenges are general glacier travel and a 45-degree chute ascending the icefall between the lower and upper Kautz Glacier. And walking at 14,000 feet, but that was sort of the point.
We met up on the Fourth to review travel skills and practice crevasse rescue techniques where they should be: on someone's lawn, and then went our separate ways to enjoy the Seattle fireworks. Thursday saw us meeting up at Paradise at 9:45am and finally starting up the long trail to Camp Hazard at 11:00.
The trail to Hazard was longer and steeper than we expected, especially with heavy packs, and the need to rope up after about a mile to cross the lower Nisqually Glacier, so by 4:00pm we decided to stop at 8400', right near the Wilson Glacier, at some fine campsites. Just after crossing the Nisqually Glacier, we ran across another group attempting the Kautz, members of the Peak Climbing Section (PCS) of the Sierra Club, some of whom Marcin and I knew! It's a small world.
The sunset was gorgeous and the night was windless.
A slightly more respectable 9am start the next day saw our ascent to Camp Hazard at 11,600'. Camp Hazard is directly beneath the ice cliffs of the Upper Kautz Glacier, and while my guidebook claims it's not called that because of danger from falling objects, we weren't so sure -- small rocks were falling fairly frequently and we saw two significant icefalls (onto the route), one each afternoon. Camp Hazard was also extremely windy pretty much the entire time, nearly blowing away one of our tents the next day. The PCS group camped at about 11,000' in some spots that appeared to be more sheltered, and reported a nice quiet night.
A "Rainier start" at 1:30am came way too early. Due to equipment hassles and problems, we didn't actually start climbing until 3:15am and were forced to leave Martin behind. The most immediate hazard was the initial chute(s), descending below the ice fall on a slope littered with rocks and loose ice chunks, circling under the ice cliffs, and then climbing a 45-degree snow chute about 600' before the angle slacked off. While somewhat unnerving by the light of the full moon and our headlamps -- enough to look beautiful, but not enough to be confident in your steps -- it wasn't too bad and we didn't feel the need to place any protection. After the top of the chute, we went right, up and over a ridge, through another icefall and onto the slopes to the summit plateau. Crevasses were numerous but generally pretty small and the snowbridges (and boot track) were good.
We finally reached the crater rim which we followed to Columbia Crest, the true summit (14,411') ah about 8:30am in the morning. A half-hour at the summit for food and water and we descended, before the snow got too soft and soupy -- it was just about perfect all the way down to Camp Hazard. This was a good thing, as one of my crampons broke on the way down! (screw popped out)
We arrived at camp at noon, spent about 2 1/2 hours melting snow and generally recovering, and began our descent at 3:30pm. Glissade paths were good, letting us make our first campsite within 75 minutes, and from then on we had to plunge-step: the glaciers were too close. We reached the Nisqually Glacier at 5:45; the snow here was thin and sloppy, and a number of the crevasses were starting to yawn alarmingly -- it's an open question how much longer this part will be in condition. We finally made it to the cars at about 7pm, and Seattle around midnight.
An amazing trip, an enjoyable route, and good companionship. You really couldn't ask for more.
Route beta: The route across the lower Nisqually to the snow chute by the Wilson Glacier may not be in condition much longer due to lateral crevasses and melting snowbrigdes. Crevasses are obvious and generally easily bypassed.
There are good campsites at 8,400' (with rock shelters) and about 11,000' that are out of the wind. Camp Hazard itself (11,600') is highly exposed to wind and is right next to some towering ice cliffs. The snow chute that you descend next to Camp Hazard really is a shooting gallery - get through it quickly, both leaving and especially on the return.
A 3am start was more than sufficient for us to reach the summit by 8:30 and make it down by noon (many rest stops and slow descent due to equipment failure). We did not require snow pro, although a belay on the Kautz Ice Chute may be desired by some (45-50 degree snow). Screws have been recommended for the ice chute.
Above Camp Hazard, there are a few large crevasses beginning to show but most were small and obvious.
-- Scribe Steve