Kautz Glacier Route, Mt Rainier
Updated: Mar 8, 2018
In my first attempt to summit and ski the massive icon, we opted for a technically difficult accent. While ultimately reaching just short of the top of the peak, the challenge itself was a big success.
Mt Rainier is an icon in several ways. On a clear day, Seattle seems to sit at the beginning of the huge volcano despite actually being over (90km?) away. So promenade is it, that it is featured on the Washington State license pl. At 14425 feet, it is one of the highest peaks in the lower 48 states and easily has the largest profile. As a result, it is one of the most revered and visited mountains in the country. On any given day in the summer, there will be thousands of cars snaking up the mountain pass to the Rainbow trail head at 7000 feet. While the great majority of these visitors are merely there to play in the summer snow above the trail head, there are many that come with the hope of summiting the mountain, some of who are on skis.
While I consider myself a pretty diehard ski enthusiast, I am little more than a novice in ski mountaineering. I have been on several multi-day ski tours at high elevation. But typically, they are more of a traverse, not an accent. A traverse rises and falls in altitude over the course of a long distance. An accent is straight up the face of a mountain culminating at the summit. These often require use of ice axes and crampons with each member connected by rope in case someone falls into a crevasse or down a steep slope. When climbing larger mountains, the accent becomes more difficult as the altitude increases. They are more prone to sudden change in weather as well. All of these factors are in full display in Mt Rainier. It is not uncommon for accomplished mountaineers to get caught in bad situations on Rainier that sometimes result in fatalities.
In classic dumb Wild Winters form, I wanted to kick off my ski mountaineering career by bagging a big peak like Rainier. Fortunately for me, my usual ski partner Max and our friend Murray would join me. They had both summited the mountain already and were more significantly more experienced mountaineers than myself. Being the weakest link in the group, I trained hard over the preceding weeks to ensure I was at least in physical shape to make the climb. We met in Vancouver to plan the route and go over our equipment so that we were ready when the time was right. After a few late spring storms deposited considerable snow in the Cascades, we a weather window opened up in late June. We packed all of our bags in Vancouver and made our way south of the border for a night in Seattle before heading to Rainier.
Despite are good intentions, we ended up staying out later than planned in Seattle. By the time we had gotten on the road (and picked up Top Pot donuts), we were a few hours behind schedule. We did not reach the Rainbow trailhead until past 11am. When checking in with the ranger, he informed us that all of the camping permits had been taken at the main, and much easier camp. The only spaces left were at the camp below the Kautz Glacier Route, one of the more difficult routes on Rainier. Since we were not about to turn around and head home, nor did we want to back down from a challenge, we committed to the Katz Route and began the long slog up the mountain to our camp at 9500 feet.
The hike up hit an early snag when my brand new Dynafit bindings broke once again reminding me that you should always test new gear before taking it out for something extreme (this was not the first time this had happened). I take some blame for the binding breaking but I later learned that this particular model is notorious for malfunctioning. Fortunately, we were able to jerry-rig a solution that allowed me to continue. However, this did cause a delay that would keep us from reaching our goal for camp that evening. It also failed on me at the end of the following day causing much frustration to end the tour.
After several hours of ski touring up large glaciers in the hot late June sun, we arrived at good location to make camp. The sun was beginning to set and the sky was painted with the most beautiful colors. Situated on the Ring of Fire, from our position midway up Rainier, we had a fantastic vantage point of several of the neighboring volcanos to the south including Mt Adams, Mt St. Helens, Mt Hood and Mt Bachelor far in the distance. Over dinner, we watched as the sky turned to night. Then we crawled under a lightweight tent that was little more than a tarp pitched like a circus tent. Fortunately, since we were all quite tired from the hike, we passed out quickly.
Around 3:30am, the alarm went off. Comfortable in our down sleeping bags, we reluctantly rose from our slumber. By the time we finished our breakfast and coffee and were ready to begin our day, it was already 4:30. Considering the altitude that we still needed to climb to reach the summit, this was cause for concern. After a brief debate about whether to ski tour or climb with crampons, we clicked on our skis and continued the accent into the sunrise.
It did not take long before we realized that the route we were taking ending in a huge ice wall towering over us. After realizing that we missed a turn, we backtracked down to the bottom of the Kurtz ice wall. While not as big or vertical as the previous wall, we had to take off our skis and put on crampons. Roped together and using our ice axe we scaled the steep wall for the next 45 minutes. While difficult to climb, each of us were cognizant of the fact that we would need to ski down this later in the day. Putting this aside, we reached the top of the ice wall where we could stop for lunch and then continue on using our skis.
As the day dragged on, we continued our march up the mountain. With each peak that we reached, another waited ahead. Eventually, burdened by our heavy bags, the heat from the sun, and the decreasing oxygen in the high alpine air, we started slowing down. Larger crevasse, or cracks in the snow from the movement of glaciers, started to become more common. It was already 2:30 in the afternoon. We stopped to assess the situation and make a call as to whether to continue. While we were only about 250 vertical meters shy of the summit, we would likely take up to an hour to reach this at our current pace. Since we still needed to ski down the difficult face we hiked up as well as pick up our gear at camp, this would cut it thin. Since we did not feel like it was worth the risk, we collectively made the tough choice to turn around.
The best part of ski mountaineering (other than reaching the summit) is obviously the ski down. The snow was warm corn snow that felt more like water skiing than snow skiing. We made it down the top of the Kautz Wall where we slowly navigated down with no issue (other than a slightly hilarious tomahawk down part of the wall). From here, we picked up our gear at camp and continued down the remainder of the face to the trail head to our car in the parking lot. On the drive home, we celebrated in taco stand in a converted bus along the road home. Despite not reaching the top, we were all in good spirits and proud of our accomplishment. We also knew that there would be more attempts in the future.