13-14 May 2011
Mt. Rainier is a massive volcanic mountain located some 50 miles southeast of Seattle, Washington. With a summit elevation of 14, 411 ft., Mt. Rainier is the tallest in the Cascade Range and in the state of Washington. On clear days, it dominates the southeastern horizon of the Seattle metropolitan area. With 26 major glaciers and 36 square miles of snowfields and glaciers, it is the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 states. The minimum ante to gain the summit is more than 9000 ft. of elevation gain and more than 14 miles roundtrip, crossing heavily glaciated terrain, and with the constant threat of the notoriously unstable Pacific Northwest weather. Despite those details (or perhaps because of them), some 10,000 people will attempt to climb Mt. Rainier each year, 90% of them via the Camp Muir – Disappointment Cleaver route. (Most of the rest of the parties will attempt the Emmons Glacier route from the northeast.)
South Face of Mt. Rainier.
Mt. Rainier has been on my list for more than a decade, but for various reasons I’ve never been able to make it happen. With reports of an epic spring snow pack in the Cascades and feeling strong after an already amazing ski season, Tanya and I rallied to Seattle to give it a go. We chose the Fuhrer Finger route for a number reasons: A) it’s one of the shortest and fastest summit routes, B) if conditions allowed, we could potentially ski a continuous 10400 vertical foot run from the summit to the Nisqually Bridge, and C) we would avoid the hordes on the Disappointment Cleaver route and could actually enjoy the mountain wilderness.
Descending onto the lower Nisqually Gl.
The latest weather forecast was calling for two days of high pressure with clear skies, solid freezes overnight, and seasonally warm temps during the day. We were cautiously optimistic that we had “caught” one of the rare NW weather windows!
Climbing the Lower Nisqually Gl.
The Fuhrer Finger Couloir comes into view (above and slightly left of me in this photo).
Our plan was to ascend the Lower Nisqually Glacier to the Wilson Glacier and then camp at around 9000 ft. on the lower Kautz Ridge. Camping on the ridge would not only be scenic, but it would be safely out of harms way from potential crevasse fall of the Upper Wilson Glacier.
Setting up camp on the Kautz Ridge.
View from the tent (Mt Adams on the horizon).
Strong winds and cold temps ensured a solid freeze overnight. The firm conditions made for excellent cramponing as we traversed the Wilson Glacier to access the Fuhrer Finger. Conditions varied as we ascended and we found everything from firm neve to boot deep wind slab. As we reached the dog-leg of the couloir, we witnessed a really cool solar halo. (Ice crystals in the thin upper level clouds refracting sun light to form a halo.)
Crossing the Wilson Glacier.
We knew that the tricky part of the route would be finding the cut-off to access the Upper Nisqually Glacier. The cut-off is the one relatively safe line through the heavily crevassed zone at approximately 12,400 ft. It is also possible to follow the rock rib directly up from the Finger couloir, but the skiing on the Upper Nisqually looked much better than what we saw near the ridge.
The crux of the cut-off was finding this 20 ft wide section where the crevasses narrowed enough to step across safely.
Heavily crevassed zone on the Upper Nisqually.
We were still feeling strong and making good time as we reached 14,000 ft and could see the summit cone just above us. The winds had been picking up as we climbed, but were not bad (certainly not by Colorado standards). But conditions changed in a heart beat as clouds rolled in, visibility dropped to less than 10 ft and the wind picked up to nearly 40 mph. We stopped long enough to put on puffy jackets and briefly discuss our options. The combination of strong winds, cold temps, limited visibility, high crevasse hazard, and the recent fatality near our high point made the choice easy: time to descend.
Weather changing, time to descend.
We had to descend nearly 1500 vertical feet to escape the cloud. With the immense crevasse hazard looming on either side and below our route (and hidden by the low visibility), it was a good test of the white-out navigation skills. Snow conditions in the Finger couloir were still a bit firm thanks to the winds and cloud cover, but conditions steadily improved as we descended. We stopped long enough to pack up camp and have a quick snack. Then 4500 more vertical feet of skiing with perfect corn conditions!
Below the cloud and entering the Fuhrer Finger couloir.
Descending the Wilson Glacier onto the lower Nisqually Gl.
Back on the Muir ridge near 5500 ft, temps were warm and winds wer calm. (Summit still shrouded in clouds.)
Snowbank in the parking lot.
We were a little disappointed not to have summited, but were still psyched to have climbed and skied the lion’s share of the Fuhrer Finger route. It truly is a classic line on an iconic mountain.
See you in the backcountry.
Spring is the best time to climb and ski many of the classic lines in Colorado and beyond! Join us for a day of guided ski mountaineering and learn the skills to safely enjoy these majestic routes.