April 27, 2017
By Samuel Bergeron
Late last season, two of my Seattle of friends and I had thought of a plan for our ultimate season ender ski tour. My friends had been living in Seattle for a year now looking at the immense peak that is Mount Rainier through their apartment window, and I has just finished a season teaching in the Canadian Selkirks. We had never skied a volcano. We planned our trip for a couple of weeks, then got out every weekend to train to get in shape to be ready for it. Ultimately our goal was cut short just 500 meters from the summit by a sketchy looking snow bridge.
Let’s rewind back to April 15th, we had a pretty amazing four-day weather window coming up, clear skies and warm weather, but also that beating spring sun coming out. We initially planned on climbing and skiing the Fuhrer finger route on Mount Rainier, a direct, decently exposed and 100% committed line straight to the summit. The hot weather was turning that route into a massive icefall of constant avalanches.
We decided on a plan B, the Ingraham direct route, a more tame approach but equally rewarding descent. It goes up a south-west facing snowfield, traverses Camp Muir, Cathedral gap, gets us onto the glacier, and goes straight up from there. We had done less recon on this line and wanted to take it slow and camp up two nights on the mountain in our tents as opposed to the traditional one night stakeout at Camp Muir, to enjoy the trip and the views a little more, but that left the sun hitting the mountain for an extra day.
My camera says 7:44am, and the sun was already blasting the upper mountain. We’re taking the more traveled Muir snowfield to the glacier to stay on safe terrain.
We had done an easy afternoon skin up to reach our first camp on the April 15th. Panorama point isn’t very far from the parking lot, but it would give us an easy second day, and a banger view once we woke up in the morning.
We got our planned dawn patrol start the next day, and planned to hit Camp Muir (10,188 feet) pretty early, hang out and have lunch there and then proceed to our planned camping spot on the glacier flats (~11,200 feet) for a short sleep, a midnight climb and a dawn summit.
By 8 am moving on the snowfields up to Camp Muir, it got quite apparent that sun radiation was at an all-time high, we’d already stripped down to our base layers and were doubling, even tripling up on sunscreen. At that time, we were on a very gently sloped snowfield before hitting any serious terrain but we had a clear view of the above glaciers and we could see and hear sun-triggered avalanches going off repeatedly throughout our travel. It was that time of the season when the mountains were shedding their winter coats and transitioning to spring corn, and we could see there was a lot of activity the upper mountain. Safe to say we didn’t want to be anywhere near avalanche terrain when the sun hit it.
We got to Camp Muir right about noon and took our gear off for a quick stretch and lunch. We thought we’d be the first ones there that day, but a four-man group had made the trip the night before and were taking a rest day before their summit attempt the next day. Another three-man group planning the same thing also shortly caught us up. All of the others were alpinists, our group being the only skiers. The four-man group informs us there had been a lot of movement on the classic Disappointment Cleaver (DC) route often taken during the summer and winter by alpinists, and that two groups turned around on that route the day before. DC stands to the right of our planned route, but bypasses most of the glacier’s ice field by going up onto a big rock formation.
We shared our plans of camping up onto the glacier flats for the night, and the other groups were happy they would have company the next day.
We headed out at around 3pm after a much longer break than planned, by then clouds were starting to roll in and the weather was quickly starting to shift back to the negatives, it was easy to forget how worried we’d been about the sun and warming during the morning. We got to the flats around an hour and a half later and proceeded to set up our tent. By 6pm we were set up, eating diner and setting our phones for a 2am wake-up. Our plan was to climb most of the glacier in the dark, summit at the early hours of the morning and be back down to Muir by 9am. We would be on the most stable snow during the night and would avoid most of the sun baking on the glacier that way.
We woke up on time and as we were putting our frozen boots on, we saw the four-man group heading our way. We were faster skiing up then they were walking. It became apparent quite quickly that the glacier had moved and broken up a lot in the last days. Navigating the broken blanket of snow was slow and no obvious path could be found. At around 3:50 am, we met what would be our decision point: a wall-to-wall crevasse spanning the whole width of the glacier. We followed it for a while trying to find a spot to traverse, at its thinnest point it was about 10 feet wide and had a broken, barely hanging on, snow-bridge that showed evidence of cracking and melt.
After multiple minutes of sitting by the crevasse weighing our choices, we decided on turning around at 4:30 am. We were a small team of skiers here to ski Mount Rainier. The three of us would maybe be able to safely cross the bridge, two for the belay was fine, but if it did go, two was the bare minimum to haul someone with full gear out of there.
Navigating the glacier had proven longer and more tedious that anticipated. We spent way more time than we wanted to be there. By the time we would be coming down, how much warmer would this bridge have gotten? Would it still be crossable? Would it even be there?
By the time we made our decision to turn around, the four-man had caught up and had decided to cross. We watched them belay each other across and wished them good luck on the return. We skied back down to camp and crossed the three-man and a new group also making their way up, we shared our ‘intel’ and headed back to make coffee in our tent.
From where we were now, not having the stress of making it back in time, we enjoyed watching the sun rise over Little Tahoma Peak. We also kept a close eye on the other groups heading up. Only the first group had crossed the crevasse that had turned us around. The other group had made the same decision as ours and started to backtrack. We could see group one zig-zagging across the rest of the glacier trying to navigate to the summit, eventually only to turn around (we would later learn they got caught up in more of the same and had to turn around).
With our objective to make it to the glacier done, all we had left was to ski off into the sunset, enjoy the descent and sunshine and make our way back to the bottom.
The 9am parking lot beers were tastier than ever knowing we were back down safely and had an awesome ski down.
Too bad for the summit. Another classic #sendandreturn adventure, we’ll just have to take the Fuhrer Finger route next time!