Intro by Louie Dawson
All year up in the northwest I had wanted to ski Rainier, but didn’t get the chance. I had decided to put it off until next year, until I got an email from Jordan a few weeks before school was over. He and his friends were headed up there there right after school ended for me, and he was wondering if I wanted to come. Heck yes! I finished my last final, frantically packed, and a few hours later I was waiting at the airport for the Colorado contingent. The weather forecast had been looking a bit iffy, but it wasn’t bad and it turned out to be a great trip. 9,000 vert is a pretty good sized ski run! Check out Caleb and Jordan’s great backcountry skiing photos.
Story by Caleb Wray
This was my third time up Rainier, a mountain that in my mind falls somewhere between a CO 14er and the Alaska Range.
With that said, this was my first time as a ski attempt. I was fortunate enough to be teamed up with three of the Aspen area’s finest young ski mountaineers. Tyler Christoff, Jordan White, and Louie Dawson. Our objective was to climb and ski the Fuhrer Finger on the mountain‘s south side. A classic route by all accounts.
Louie had just finished up the year’s classes at Western Washington U. and was available to pick us up from Sea-Tac. We arrived a little later than expected due to the never ceasing thunderstorms in CO this spring. After stuffing down some calories, Louie‘s Cherokee, nearly busting at the seams with climbers and gear, barreled toward Rainier. We pulled into Paradise at 2 am, threw down bags and mats, and were all asleep within minutes.
Sunrise played alarm clock the next morning and gear was soon dispersed from shoulder to shoulder on the asphalt. We tightened our rigs, completed the paperwork, and began skinning up the trail under bluebird sky. The weather beta was that mornings had been nice, but afternoon thunderstorms were almost a lock. Much like summer climbing in CO.
Once on the glacier we broke out the rope, a 70 meter 8 mil. At 42g a meter that’s about as light as you’d want on a glacier, and was a bit longer than standard. We reasoned that the extra rope between climbers would add friction in the case of a crevasse fall, much needed given that we would be arresting with whippets. Luckily Jordan, who’s known for his body mass, decided not to go spelunking on this trip.
We gained the last few hundred vertical feet to our bivy site via long switchbacks on skins. It was around 2 pm when we arrived at 9,200ft on the Kautz Ridge. Camp went up quickly and the nap/eat Olympics began.
|A few light thunderstorms rolled through, dropping hail and graupel. However we were rewarded with quite a spectacular sunset during dinner. Click image to enlarge!|
2:30am arrived too quickly. The wind had been blowing steadily throughout the night making even sleep with earplugs a little restless. I peeked out of the tent at the sky, a few lingering clouds high and some building moisture down low. Not perfect, but good enough for a summit shot. As is typical on starts like this, it took us a while to get moving. Once moving though, this crew picked up vert quickly.
We climbed from 11,500ft to 12,500ft in thick clouds and falling graupel. There is a cutoff to the upper Nisqually Glacier somewhere in this area, but with the weather we didn‘t have a prayer of finding it efficiently. Therefore we elected to continue climbing the ridge, using it as a landmark up to the high snowfields.
|The light on the glacier was otherworldly. Click image to enlarge!|
At around 13,000, we finally broke through the clouds and were able to sweat our way up the high snowfields to the crater rim.
|Near the summit. Click image to enlarge!|
We were greeted on the crater rim by a cold northeast wind and a little confusion as to which point was the actual summit. I had been up there twice before, but never from the south side. Cloud cover was preventing the necessary orientation, but I was pretty sure it was a point across the crater floor. Louie wasn‘t convinced. He studied the map thoroughly, used his inclinometer to check relative elevations, and then pronounced he thought the summit was just north of us a few hundred feet. The clouds cleared and he was vindicated. We were indeed on the ridge between the two craters. Thanks Louie.
The weather was kind enough to partially clear for us as we clicked into our downhill transportation. The top 2,000 vertical feet were excellent.
|Louie.Click image to enlarge!|
The ridge we’d used for part of the climb did not have good skiing potential, so we elected to drop the upper Nisqually Glacier and then try to find the cutoff to the Finger. We were forced to ski over a few snow bridges, a dicey feeling, but visibility held and we easily found the cutoff.
The sun cupping in the Finger Couloir was fairly severe, but the warming temps made the snow bearable, especially after Jordan skied it. We skied directly across the Wilson Glacier back to our camp just a few minutes ahead of a sizable thunderstorm.
The storm lifted an hour later and we set about the business of packing up the bivy gear. The snowpack was saturated from the storm and wet slides were a guarantee. We stayed on the low angle all the way down. The descent was uneventful with the exception of a gnarly heavy-pack-faceplant by me and skiing between tourists like slalom gates on the Paradise snowfield.
Roundtrip of 32 hours. 9,000 vertical climbed and skied. And it felt like we had the whole mountain to ourselves. I don‘t recall seeing any other groups on the route or the summit. A truly great trip with some fine mountaineers. Looking forward to the next one fellas.