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For the past few years, it seems January has rolled into Washington with a big high pressure system. This year hasn’t been any different, and “Juneuary” is in full force. With the sunny conditions, and even reports of corn on south slopes, I wanted to ski something big.
After a lengthy facebook discussion, and much hemming and hawing, we decided on Rainier. Friends wanted to take advantage of the great weather, and our group ballooned to seven people. I’m not usually a fan of big groups in the mountains, as they make decision making difficult, and slow you down significantly. However, I decided to make an exception this weekend as good weather, solid snow, and a cohesive group of good friends seemed to bode well.
We sorted gear and purchased our climbing passes in Longmire, and then drove up to Paradise a little after it opened. We shouldered heavy packs, and began the hike into camp above the Wilson Glacier. We had loose plans of skiing something in the area, either the Fuhrer Finger, Thumb, or the Kautz Glacier. I even had a sliver of hope that the Wilson or Kautz headwalls would be in. As a way of mitigating our group size, we hoped to split up and tackle different routes. Alas, as we got closer to camp, it became obvious that the snow conditions weren’t ideal (hey, its January, after all). The upper Kautz was a shinny mass of blue ice, and the ice chute looked unskiable as well. We decided on heading up the Fuhrer Finger, as it appeared to have the best snow quality, and might soften a bit in the sun.
We woke at three, and after a quick water-making session, we headed across the Wilson toward the base of the finger. I was prepared to turn around soon if the snow appeared too icy, but with some wandering back and forth, we were able to find edgeable snow all the way up. The sun rose as we neared the top of the couloir. Sunrise revealed a beautiful clear blue sky, with a see of fog covering the lowlands. Beautiful!
We moved out onto the Nisqually Glacier briefly, and then climbed a steep, icy slope to gain the ridge. At this point Zach was starting to feel the altitude, so he hunkered down while we continued slowly toward the top. We reached the top a little later than we wanted, at 1:30.
Wanting to avoid some of the icier pitches we climbed up, we headed down the upper Nisqually Glacier. The route finding was a little tricky, but the crevasses were all bridged fairly solidly, and eventually we traversed into the top of the Fuhrer Finger Couloir. The top held some icy snow, I headed down first, and then hunkered behind a rock. Coop followed, and then we both waited. After a while, I was starting to wonder what was going on up above.
Someone skied down, and said “Tristan’s binding ripped out!” Tristan had been side slipping the icy snow at the top, and his Dynafit toepiece pulled right out of his uphill ski. Luckily he was able to stop and put his crampons on, and hike down to us.
The rest of the crew skied back to camp, while I waited for Tristan to downclimb the entire Fuhrer Finger. We reached the bottom a little after dark. Not wanting to have to walk the whole Wilson Glacier, we attempted to jury rig a fix. The other front insert holes were unused, but they were a little damaged from the pullout. I cleaned the insert material off the screws, and screwed the toepiece on. The ski no longer fit Tristan’s boot but it did fit mine so we swapped skis for one foot and began skiing. The rest of the group met up with us, loaded down with all the bivy gear. We skied down to the Nisqually, and decided to keep going down to the Nisqually bridge, for a 10,500 foot descent. Unfortunately, after a few minutes of skiing down the Nisqually valley, the jury-rigged binding pulled out as well. Surprisingly, the other set of front inserts pulled out as well. We were a ways down the valley already, so Tristan pulled off some impressive night-time one-ski breakable crust skiing to get down to the bridge.
Tristan’s skis are Dynafit Stokes that are a few years old. They’ve had at least one heel piece rip out previously, and Tristan had only skied them a few times before taking them on our Rainier trip. I’ve never been much of a fan of Dynafit’s insert system, although most of the time they seem to work fine. Perhaps this pair was defective, either way, his binding definitely ripped out much easier than it should have.
My advice is if you’re skiing places where a fall could have serious consequences, think twice about using Dynafit skis with inserts, or at least ski them hard before your trip to make sure they’ll hold up. Really, this principle applies to anything you use in serious alpinism. Don’t put yourself in potentially dangerous situations with relatively untested gear. After seeing what happened and knowing the consequences could have been dire (a deadly fall down the entire Fuhrer Finger) I know I’ll be adhering to this principle with ever more diligence.
The binding issues had slowed us down significantly, and we reached the bridge at 9:00. We devoured some chips and salsa, and the proceeded to make our way out of the locked gate, and ended up at Denny’s, the first open food establishment we could find. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the food quality at Denny’s, let’s just say it was food.
An interesting trip, to say the least. Route conditions, gear failures, and sickness turned it into a mini-epic. Still, I had a blast.
(Check out the other Fuhrer Finger ski I was on a few years ago.)
Louie Dawson earned his Bachelor Degree in Industrial Design from Western Washington University in 2014. When he’s not skiing Mount Baker or somewhere equally as snowy, he’s thinking about new products to make ski mountaineering more fun and safe.