On April Fools Day Tobin and I decided to get out and climb the Gibraltar Ledges route on Rainier. We were hoping to do a true winter ascent in January/February, but never found the right weather/snow conditions that fit our schedule. So we settled for early spring. This was Tobin’s first time to the top, and my bazillionth time. It was nice though doing a new route with more difficulty and steepness than other summer routes I’ve climbed. It’s also much more direct than the meandering Disappointment Cleaver route.
Mount Rainier: Gib Ledges
By Thatcher Kelley | Published
For once a good night’s sleep, thanks to the national park for closing the road to Paradise at night this time of year. We won’t be able to get in until nine at the earliest. So I’m not able to force my classic super early leave-time. And of course this makes me kind of anxious as we pull up to the parking lot around ten. It’s hot. Like real hot. It’s summer hot. I’m not sure I’m ready for summer yet. I thought I was. But now I’m faced with ascending forty five hundred feet of elevation on the exposed, unshaded Muir Snowfield. I know, it’s snow. Snow is cold. It’ll keep me cool right? Wrong. The sun reflects off the snow and back onto me. It’s like those wrinkled old ladies who sun bathe with a mirror reflector under their chin. I’m not looking forward to this. Just two days prior I was here in a wind storm. It was brisk, I was bundled up. I was looking forward to being back today in warm weather. Now I’m not so sure I prefer it warm.
Alas the show must go on. Tobin and I heave our heavy climbing packs over our shoulders, click into our skis and begin the slow slog towards the Snowfield. Paradise Meadows are beautiful, maybe even more so with snow cover than in the summer when they’re adorned with wildflowers. Sweat comes easy as we make our way towards Panorama Face, the steepest part of our day. Panorama face is typically pretty icy in the morning from high winds and shade. Luckily the sun has been blasting it for some time and that makes it possible to keep our skis on; which I’m glad for because I don’t think I could fit them on my backpack. We reach Panorama Point in seemingly no time, stop for our first break and ponder the unending snowfield before us. The snowfield isn’t steep. Nor is it difficult. But it is unending. You can see all the way up to the little black guide hut at Camp Muir. On one hand it’s nice to see your goal. On the other hand your goal never seems to get closer no matter how far you go.
The nice thing about the snowfield is that it’s easy to set a pace, get into a rhythm, put your head down and just move. And that’s what we do. Taking turns in the lead we make our way slowly, but surely towards Muir. It doesn’t feel like progress is being made, but the altimeter assures us that it is. The constant monotony of shuffling up the snowfield can drive you mad. With the rythmic whooshing of the skins and breathing. Whoosh…whoosh…breath in…whoosh…whoosh…breath out…repeat. I begin to sing under my breath the most obnoxious lines in my least favorite songs over and over and over. Then I look up and Camp Muir seems no closer. This process is maddening. Finally some relief as we pull up to some fellow climbers who are mysteriously digging Rainier beers out of the snow. My first thought is “so this is where they mine for rainier beer eh?”. But apparently the slopes of rainier aren’t really where tall boys of Rainier grow. These climbers had stashed a 36 pack the week before when they got caught in a snowstorm. They were now digging some up to bring with them to camp. And to my joy we’re offered some to bring up for ourselves. We can’t let this beer just sit here and go bad. So we oblige them and stuff one more thing into our already-jammed packs. Having this quick break re-ignites our spirits giving us that last bit of energy needed to gain the last thousand feet for the day. Again it feels endless, but we know we’re near. I can almost smell the ronchy toilets from here. We make our way up the last few steps and plop down on top of one of the structures to soak in the now-welcome sun.
We melt snow for water, drink our beer, and eat our well-deserved lunch. Pastrami never tasted so good. After some time of basking we start mingling with the other climbers, some who are heading up tonight with us, some who have just returned. We get some great information about the route that builds confidence. We’re also glad we won’t be the only climbers on the route. This is with one exception. We meet a climbing team that has us worried. The first clue is that their climbing rope still has its packaging on it. The second clue is that they don’t seem to know the names of any of the routes. The more we talk to them the more I’m worried about them, and any hazard they could be to other teams. After putting some thought into it I find a gentle way of suggesting they don’t try the more difficult Gibraltar Ledge route and to reconsider their plans to climb at all. You have to respect the mountain. You have to know what kind of terrain you’re getting into and be prepared for it. Less than a week ago a climber died no more than 1500ft from here. And that climber has climbed Everest and K2. I think I’ve successfully talked him out of climbing the Ledges. At some point it’s worth the risk to be the rude, imposing jerk. Their lives as well as others could be at stake and I’d rather speak up now than regret that I didn’t later.
With the final hours of daylight I scramble up a nearby peak to take some shots of camp, Rainier and the distant mountains. As light fades we retire for our 5 hour nap before a 12am start the next “morning”
Finally it’s midnight. I’ve been up since…well yesterday morning. Laying around for several hours while everyone else snores away has gotten me anxious. I’m ready to be up and moving. I rouse Tobin and we start getting ready. I down a ziplock bag full of oatmeal, a cup of coffee and begin armoring up for our assault on the mountain. It’s one forty five by the time we finally start up the Cowlitz Glacier towards Gibraltar Rock. Conveniently we find a well-laid boot track leading up. This helps speed our progress towards the top of the glacier. About three quarters of the way up the Cowlitz we pass a dug-out snow pit, in full view of Camp Muir presumably where a climber had died of exposure the previous week. It’s a sobering moment and a reminder of the hazards that this mountain can dish out. In what feels like no time we make it to the entrance of the ledge system that skirts the south face of Gibraltar.
Clambering over the Cowlitz Cleaver, which consists of frozen gravel and boulders, we arrive at the beginning of the ledge. The ledges appear in good shape, which basically means that there is good firm snow covering them. When there is no snow, it’s just a scrambled mess of loose rock. This is the first no-fall zone of our ascent. The snow isn’t more than forty five degrees, but it does give us pause because any fall is probably unrecoverable before plummeting over the cliff below. Unlike ascending the Cowlitz, progress is slow. The ledges are traversing more than ascending and this actually slows us. Traversing on steep snow isn’t particularly easy. You have your feet facing the direction you are moving, but your arms and ice tools are facing the slope. So your body is basically twisted and off balance much of the time. This makes for slow progress, but thankfully the snow is a styrofoam consistency. It’s firm, but not icy. We move from one ledge to the next always expecting it to be the last. In the distance we see a headlamp quickly moving up the lower Gibraltar Chute. I suspect that it’s Dan, a solo climber we met at Muir hours earlier. Eventually the ledges dump us out into the chute, which is supposed to be the steepest slope and the crux of the climb. We find climbing the chute much easier and more enjoyable than the ledges before. Since now we are climbing straight up we feel more comfortable with our foot and tool placements. Climbers the previous day had set protection in the snow and belayed each other up the chute. We decide that the safety in belaying here is negated by the extra time spent setting up an anchor. So we charge up with purpose aiming for Camp Comfort, the saddle between Gibraltar Rock and the Nisqually Glacier. The steepness eases as we reach the saddle.
Despite the howling winds, which were surprisingly absent until now, and the ice cliff just on the other side, Camp Comfort really is comforting after having spent the last few hours in no-fall terrain. We find Dan taking a break on the ridge. We decide to join him. Finally able to relax our bodies and take a well-deserved rest before continuing up the Nisqually, we plop down, chug some water, and choke down some food. Tobin chats with Dan as I pull out my tripod and camera to take some long exposures. The eastern horizon begins to glow lavender and violet telling me the sun isn’t far behind. The sweat cools, and wind picks up. So we decide to start moving agin. Dan decides to stick with us as we ascend the last couple thousand feet up the Nisqually. The route ascends gently at first, becoming steeper and steeper as we reach the bergschrund around thirteen thousand five hundred feet. A bergschrund is the fancy name for a large crevasse that divides a flowing glacier below from an un-moving ice cap above. The glacier is still under winter conditions. So the bergschrund is mostly covered in seasonal snow, making the crossing easy. However the steepness of the slope now easily surpasses Gibraltar Chute, making this the true crux of the route.
As we front point our way up and over, the slope once again eases off. The last thousand feet are uneventful and uninteresting. The high altitude makes our progress slow, and our heartbeats fast. Finally the rocky edge of the crater rim is in view and we make our way to it’s low point to the south. We’re passed by the friendly beer-sharing climbers as they descend on Snowboards. At this point I’m a little jealous that I left my skis at Camp Muir. Once at the rim we drop our rope and backpacks for the final traverse across the football field-sized crater, and up to the highpoint of the summit: Columbia Crest.
On a climb like this, every ounce of weight matters. You only bring to Camp Muir what you truly need. And on the upper mountain you leave everything you possibly can at Camp Muir. My four pound telephoto lens made its way to the very top for one shot. From the summit, with a long lens, there is a perfect frame of Liberty Cap in the foreground with the Olympics in the Background, and Puget Sound and South King County, my home, in the middle. This is such an interesting and rare perspective to me. We spend our lives living under Rainier’s shadow. Almost everyone has a view of it at some point in their daily lives. This is the opportunity to show the flip side. For everyone that looks up at Mount Rainier on a daily basis, Mount Rainier is looking right back at them. I’ve been wanting this shot for a long time. I lugged my big lens up just for this. Unfortunately the photography gods aren’t smiling on me today. There is a low marine layer covering the whole Puget Sound region. I had to settle for a shot just of the Olympics and Liberty Cap. I’ll be back again to get the shot another day. I put the lens away. We snap a few victory photos and hurry back to our backpacks to descend the mountain.
Our descent takes us down the Ingraham Direct route, which is only accessible this time of year. The middle portion of the Ingraham Glacier is an ice fall and only in the winter and early spring is it navigable. As we make our way down the mountain something feels off. I don’t know how to describe it, but we all feel it. Something in our gut tells us we need to get down sooner than later. We know there was supposed to be a weak weather system blowing in later in the day, but this felt different. We make haste descending the upper glacier, reaching the top of Disappointment Cleaver and the Ice fall in good time. By now it’s getting warm. The wind has stopped and the sun is glaring. We shed layers and lather up with sunblock. The ice fall is in decent shape still as we wind our way down and around crevasses and seracs.
We cross Ingraham Flats and turn back to look at the summit. It’s now shrouded in a nasty-looking lenticular cloud. From the looks of it the wind speed has risen to around one hundred miles per hour. Glad we dodged that bullet, we wrap around Cathedral gap and cross the Cowlitz back to Muir. While packing up we run into some day-skiers who tell us of a lone-climber who is descending the snowfield in terrible shape, stumbling and falling over. We aren’t surprised to find out that it’s one of the inexperienced climbers we encountered the day before. Before heading down we do the prudent thing and ring the Park’s dispatch on the emergency radio. We fill them in on the state of the climber, where he is at and that he’ll likely need help getting down. Thankfully there are already rangers patrolling near his position.
After sipping a celebratory Rainier beer we don our packs, click into our skis and make our way in good time down to the car. The skiing isn’t great. The snow is lumpy, our legs are jello, and our packs are heavy. A few turns make me smile, but really the skis are there just to get us down sooner. We reach the car quickly and escape the tourist-ridden parking lot with speed. As usual these climbs make me hungry; for food, which is easily satisfied by Copper Creek in Ashford, but also for another climb. As we drive home Tobin and I discuss our next adventures.
Copyright 2016 Thatcher Kelley