June 18, 2019
Mt. Rainier stands at 14,410 feet above sea level, it is the most glaciated mountain in the contiguous U.S., and it’s an active volcano. Each year alpinists from around the world are drawn to the enormous mountain for the surreal experiences it offers. Its allure continues despite its known risks: the mountain has claimed many lives and in the few weeks I have been home from this trip a climber has lost his life on the mountain from rockfall. BCA marketing intern Hayden Fake reports in.
With immense respect for this peak, I loaded myself and my gear into an old truck with a few of my closest friends and we set out to climb and ski Mt. Rainier. Ultimately a wind slab would not let these adventurers see the view from the summit, but good decision making would leave us with sweet memories.
Low clouds and steady rain blanketed the morning drive to Mt. Rainier National Park. We put the day to good use and checked out some of the park. Our intended line was to ski the Fuhrer Finger and then work our way all the way down to the Nisqually bridge.
However, looking up from the bridge, we realized that the snowline had receded too much for us to complete the fantasy of skiing the 10,000’ + descent from the top, so we began mentally adjusting our route.
On the drive to camp, we discussed our plan. The idea had always been to leave Paradise Lodge before midnight and push through to the summit. The point was to reduce weight by not bringing as much overnight gear and meals and to line ourselves up to make our weather window on Saturday morning. Our goal was to #sendandreturn by climbing and skiing Mt. Rainier in one single push.
However, our discussion led us away from this plan. We recognized that the receded snow line on Rainier meant we would not be able to ski to the road and would have to skin back out to the truck. We began to question the physical demand and our real concern for the snow conditions. Instead, we decided that the best plan would be to arrive at Camp Muir the next day (Friday) so that we could break up the ascent and get a better understanding of the weather and transitioning spring snowpack on the mountain.
We started uphill at noon the next day and immediately entered the Ping-Pong ball. White in every direction made vertigo a close friend. We followed our pre-mapped GPS route and relied heavily on the lactic acid in our legs to tell us when our skinner was too steep.
About 700 feet below Camp Muir, the clouds began to break and we could finally see the behemoth we were ascending. Motivated by the views and the sunlight, we pushed toward the stone shelter of Camp Muir that we would call home for the night.
Hayden and Kyle Koenig rehydrating and soaking up the views from Camp Muir.
We were greeted immediately upon arrival at Camp Muir by an incredibly helpful IFMGA certified Mountain Ranger (Kurt Hicks) who quickly brought us up to speed on the status of the routes, weather, and snowpack. We were grateful to know, but disappointed to find out, that the previous days of weather had deposited almost three feet of new snow on the mountain. This snowstorm was followed by swirling winds that had created wind slabs and cross-loading on most aspects. He openly shared that he was very nervous about the conditions up high and personally would not go up, ending the debrief by letting us know that he understood that we would arrive at our own decision to climb and ski Mt. Rainier with the best plan to #sendandreturn.
Just before we devoured our freeze-dried meals while watching the sunset and the clouds expose Mt. Adams, Kurt came over again to share an update from a group of guides that had returned from some stability tests up higher.
The new report supported our previous conversation: the wind slabs were pretty severe and it popped quite planer at CT 11 when the group dug a snow pit. He told us that one guided group was going to leave camp at 3:00 AM but had little expectation of summiting Mt. Rainier given the conditions.
We then learned that the other groups staying in the hut had canceled their alarms before bed and were getting ready for a lazy morning.
We watched the moonrise and decided we had come too far not to try. We planned to wake up early and go for the summit shortly after the guided group left, and only go as far as we felt safe.
We were out of the hut a little before 3:30 am the next morning. We were groggy, but happy to be on the mountain looking down on the clouds under a full moon that made our headlamps almost unnecessary. Shortly after starting up the boot pack, we saw the guided group leave Camp Muir a little behind schedule.
We stopped at the bottom of the Ingraham Flats to adjust gear, grab a snack, and watch the sunrise when the group passed us. We knew that chances of the conditions allowing an ascent of Mt. Rainier were low, but if it was possible, we were happy to have the seasoned guides find the buried ladders up the Ingraham Direct route. Our hope lowered further when the group settled to take in the view and accepted their location to be the turnaround point for the day. We stopped a little past them for our final #sendandreturn decision point.
“My spidey senses are tingling,” Kyle said as we neared the end of the Ingraham Flats. Nick agreed, saying, “Yeah, I don’t like this. I don’t think we should go any further.” But Tashi and I wanted it. We shared our feelings with the group, and I started a few snow stability tests. A hand shear test was all it took: the wind slab popped out in a perfect rectangle with a perfect planar bottom. I looked across the aspect and imagined the bulged areas breaking loose and carrying us into the crevasses below–and quietly started getting ready to ski down.
The ski descent down Mt. Rainier was still awesome. We had skied the 6,000 vertical feet back to the truck over an hour through some blower dust-on-crust, laughing all the way down in the clear morning light. In the parking lot, we each cracked a Rainier beer, of course, and gave thanks to the mountain for the excellent experience. We embraced each other, knowing that we made the right decision in the true spirit of #sendandreturn. Under a blue sky, we were able to comprehend the size of the mountain, and on the way out of Mt. Rainier National Park, we decided we’d be back—not for the Fuhrer Finger, but the more fascinating descent on the Mowich Face.
When I tell this story, people sometimes feel bad for me not getting to Mt. Rainier’s summit or not being able to ski the intended line. But hindsight being what is, I would have made the same decisions and done the exact same thing. I got to spend a stellar weekend playing on a huge mountain with my best friends, and we all came home safe. That’s something I’ll never regret. #sendandreturn