Mt. Rainier – Wilson Headwall Ski, and Kautz Headwall Attempt

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Rainier is a unique mountain. It’s utter mass contains the many ski routes of several smaller mountains combined. That, along with the fact the gigantic volcano protrudes thousands of feet higher than the surrounding Cascades, makes it a challenging, enticing goal for glisse alpinism.

Last weekend Eric Svege, Eric Weherly, Brian Fletcher, and I headed up to the south side of Rainier to take advantage of clear, warm weather. I’ve skied Rainier a few times, but the big icy one still holds tons of routes that I salivate over. Two of those are the Wilson Headwall and the Kautz Headwall.

As we left Paradise and skinned toward Rainier, the clouds broke, revealing a clear, bluebird day. Beautiful! Wilson Headwall is straight ahead, while the Kautz Headwall is on the upper left skyline.

Driving up to Paradise as the early morning transitioned to dawn, we traveled through patches of fog and rain. A little uncertain that we made the right choice, and misinterpreted the weather forecasts, we were reassured by brief glimpses of a sunny upper mountain through the clouds. We left the parking lot around 8, and after a few minutes of hiking, the clouds began to break, revealing a clear blue sky. Although not our original plan, the sunlit Wilson Headwall enticed us, and we decided to head that way. We dropped our camping gear above Wilson Glacier and continued across toward the Fuhrer Finger. A few hours later we stood on top of the run, just as parts were beginning to be overtaken by afternoon shade. The corn on the headwall was still a bit hard, but the glacier below skied great.

Climbing the Fuhrer Finger towards the entrance to the Wilson Headwall.

Looking down the Wilson Headwall, with Eric and Brian down below.

Looking down the Wilson Headwall, with Eric and Brian down below.

Skiing on the lower Wilson Headwall, with clouds above the Wilson Glacier below.

Hanging out at camp, enjoying the views of the south of Washington State.

Random gear tidbit: During this trip I tried a bit of a different sleeping system than I normally use. I usually carry a heavy 0-degree sleeping bag on ski trips, for maximum comfort and rest. This trip I tried out a super-light 32 degree bag, a Mountain Equipment Helium 250, along with an extra fleece upper layer, and some light down pants. I normally just use the bag for summer trips or winter hut trips, but it proved to work well for this trip as well, although the temps got well below freezing. I’m always trying to get my pack weight down, especially for trips like this that have a lot of necessary heavy gear.

We went to bed early, and woke early to head out toward the Kautz Headwall. A few hours later we got a closer look at the headwall. It appeared slightly more bare than usual, most likely from our lower snowpack this year, although still skiable. We debated continuing up the headwall, or climbing the Kautz Cleaver instead. Ultimately we decided to continue with our original plan.

As we got on the headwall proper, and as the sun hit, a few rocks started to let loose off the crumbling volcanic rock above us. As the igneous buzz-saws whizzed by our heads, we began to have second thoughts about continuing up the headwall. Although the rocks were coming down, strong winds threatened to never allow the corn to soften sufficiently — a tricky combination. We hung out under an overhang of rock for a few hours, and then decided to head down from that point at approx 12,500 feet. This was the first steep corn my skis had touched in months, and the descent was excellent. We skied the glacier down to our camp, and the corn only got better. After a bit of sun-lounging at camp, we packed up and headed down to the Nisqually bridge.

A few hours into the day, as the sun rose, it cast a shadow of Rainier over western Washington.

Eric and Eric hiking up the Kautz Glacier.

Brian starts the ski from our turn around point on the Kautz Headwall.

Eric skiing the lower Kautz Headwall.

Our glimpse into spring was enticing, although the weather seems to be turning back to a more wintry pattern for now. Although we only got 1.5 out of the planned 2 headwall extravaganza, the trip easily brought maximum enjoyment and a welcome break from school.


6 Responses to “Mt. Rainier – Wilson Headwall Ski, and Kautz Headwall Attempt”

  1. Lisa Dawson April 21st, 2014 4:29 pm

    Beautiful trip, liked your decision making. Looking forward to skiing PNW corn with you in June!

  2. Ben P April 22nd, 2014 8:08 am

    I plan to do Rainier when the weather window matches my days off. Thanks for the beta!

  3. Mike Marolt April 22nd, 2014 8:19 am

    Louie, from the Fuher, which way is the wall, right or left?

    Looks like a great adventure! Brings back great memories of the Finger.

  4. Manfred Q April 22nd, 2014 11:07 am

    Hi Louie,always nice to test new equipment options to reduce the weight and give feed back.

  5. Sky April 22nd, 2014 11:52 am

    Louie — Good choices! Those are two very classic headwalls to ski, as good as any. Good to see you skiing with old man Wehrly.

    Mike Marolt — From Fuhrer Finger, next chute to the looker’s left is Fuhrer Thumb, next headwall to the left is Wilson Headwall, then the ice cliff, then the glacial chute next to it is the Kautz Glacier, then farther left is the Kautz Headwall.

  6. Drew Tabke April 24th, 2014 9:43 am

    Cool report, Louie!

    But if you guys don’t invite me next time, I’ll slash your tires :-\

    This coming week looks promising….

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