Late last December, my pastor, Charlie Swartz, pulled me aside and asked if I’d be interested in climbing Rainier with him. I’d tried twice before, succeeding once, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough with my skills to lead a team myself. Consequently, I asked my cousin Brian (who has 10 Rainier summits and an Everest summit on his resume) if he’d be interested in leading the team. He was, and we started planning.
The only route that I’d done before was the Schurman/Emmonds approach on the other side of the mountain. This time, however, my cousin had talked us into trying something a little more challenging: the Kautz Ice Chute, a couple miles climber’s left of the standard Disappointment Cleaver route. Gauthier’s book describes it as a Grade II/III, basically because of the difficulty of the ice chute, which has a one 50 degree pitch, and a second 60 degree pitch. That seemed challenging for a bunch of newbies, but folks liked the idea, so we went with it.
Over the next six months, probably two dozen people “joined” our team and then backed out, but when we finally left the Paradise parking lot on Wednesday morning, we had 11 folks hoofing it up towards Pan Point.
Unfortunately, the two most interesting members of our party had to back out first. Lhakpa Sherpa has five Everest summits under his belt, but his wife Maya wasn’t feeling good at elevation, so they peeled off after crossing the Nisqually Glacier, and headed back to Seattle, which left nine of us heading up out of the Nisqually and up onto Wapowety Cleaver.
Once we were on Wapowety Cleaver, we crossed over the Wilson Glacier then began working our way towards the base of the Turtle.
What with one delay or another, along with the logistics of keeping a large group moving, we ended up getting to camp later than we had hoped, about 7:00 pm. We setup camp at about 9500 feet, right around the base of the Turtle, ate dinner, watched the sunset, and then headed to bed.
Our original plan had been to take Thursday as a rest day, and then summit and descend on Friday. However, most folks were feeling fairly good, so we decided to try for a 3:00 am start on Thursday morning. The result was that I got four hours sleep, and pretty much everyone else got less – several folks didn’t get any, and two members of our team were feeling too exhausted to try for the summit.
The seven remaining members of our team made it to the top of the Turtle just as the sun was coming up. We roped up, adjusted our crampons, and headed onto the Kautz ice chute.
Luckily for us, the route was in excellent shape. Usually, by mid-July, the Kautz is more ice than snow, but we still had a great snowpack, so even the two steep pitches didn’t give us much trouble going up. We eventually made it up off the Kautz, and at about 13,000 feet crossed over to the Nisqually.
Unfortunately, this is about when one of our party began to suffer some of the symptoms of AMS. Stephanie Spence was an experienced mountaineer, and had climbed at the 14,000 foot level in the past, but this time she began throwing up at around 13,000 feet. She insisted on continuing, but by 13,500 she was done. Graciously, Eric Dalzell, another Everest veteran, volunteered to give up his summit and descend with her.
The last 1000 feet were brutal. It was a step, and then two breaths, and then another step, and another two breaths, the entire way. Anne Timblin declared that this was significantly harder than the half-ironman she’d done the year, and that she should have turned back. But she kept going, and so did the rest of us.
Finally, a little after noon, we crossed over the summit rocks and stood on the summit crater.
The weather was still perfectly clear, though the winds were beginning to pick up. Several of us hunkered down in the rocks near the steam caves and took long naps.
After an hour and a half or so on the summit, we began descending, which was a long, slow process.
The trickiest part came while descending the top pitch of the Kautz Ice Chute. The snow was pretty soft, which made for good down climbing, except for a 10 yard stretch of ice. My cousin Brian had four of us on belay as we were descending the chute, so we were fairly well protected, but we were still trying to be careful. I got to the icy stretch, and between general fatigue, nervousness, and inexperience, I couldn’t keep my crampons in the ice. Unfortunately, although I had slowed down, the climber above me hadn’t, so there was a significant amount of slack in the rope when my crampons finally popped out and I went for a tumble down the slope. I yelled “Falling!!”, and luckily the folks above me had enough time to go into self arrest. I ended up sliding some 20-30 feet, and gave the rope a good yank when I finally hit the end, but they held on, which was good, as I didn’t have any desire to test the strength of the pickets up at our belay station.
After we’d reached another belay station towards the bottom of the pitch, we unroped, and then I belayed my cousin down. The belay was mostly just for appearances, as we hadn’t placed any protection on the way down (Eric was carrying our extra pickets when he left to accompany Stephanie down the mountain): if Brian had fallen, he would have swept past us and then to the end of the rope before we could have stopped him. Luckily, he was able to bypass the icy patch, and made it safely down to our belay station.
The only other interesting part of our descent came a couple hundred feet further down the chute, towards the bottom of the lower pitch. I was kickstepping my way down the chute, facing into the slope, when I felt the snow give way under me. I went into self-arrest, but not before I found my legs and chest dangling inside a large crevasse. I elbowed my way out – style points didn’t seem important at that point – and then our team carefully navigated around the crevasse, and we continued our descent to camp without any further incidents (other than a nice glissade down the Turtle).
The next day, we made ourselves breakfast, then headed out.
The snow was soft enough that we were able to glissade maybe 75% of our way down to the Nisqually.
And damn, it felt good to get back to the parking lot.
Some lessons I learned:
- If we ever do a newbie trip again, we’ll plan for four full days on the mountain. If we’d had a rest day between our ascent to high camp and our summit day, probably all nine remaining members of our party would have been able to summit, instead of just five of us.
- Folks without ice climbing experience have no business being out on the Kautz Ice Chute. We got lucky in that the ratio of snow to ice on the Kautz was roughly 20:1, but I get the impression that’s not at all typical for this time of year. If it had been a normal year, we would have struggled a great deal more. Before I do that route again, I need to get some real experience on hard ice.
- Training with a heavy pack at altitude is the best conditioning, and I hadn’t done enough of it. I’ve been training regularly and hard for six months, and I’ve made trips up to both Muir and Schurman this season, but I could easily have used another two 10,000+ climbs before trying for the summit.
- Large groups travel slowly. A team of 12 people is just too large, and moves, well, glacially. Next time, I won’t go with a group larger than six people.
- I need a smaller camera than my DSLR to take on these trips. Not only was my Pentax K10D heavy (I didn’t need the extra two pounds), but it’s awkward, with the result that I had to leave it in my pack most of the time. It doesn’t matter that an SLR takes better photographs if I can’t get the picture because I can’t get at the camera.
- Once again, I was carrying too much: my pack weighed nearly 80 pounds out of the parking lot. Options for dropping weight include switching over to a jet boil stove, taking less food (I had ~10 pounds left over), and carrying less water (see #7).
- I need to figure out how to drink less water. During our two climbing days, I drank probably twice as much water as anyone else – nearly six liters on each of our climbing days. I sweat a lot, but still, this seems excessive. My suspicion is that I was probably suffering from hyponatremia, and that some Gatorade mix, or even just some Nuun tablets, would have made a significant difference in the amount of water I felt I needed.
- The Asolo AFS Evoluzione climbing boots that I rented from REI were worthless. They have no flex in them whatsoever, and while they might be good for technical ice climbing, they’re vastly inappropriate for general-purpose mountaineering. Specifically, they’re nowhere near as good as the Koflachs that REI used to rent. It was like climbing in plastic ski boots: I ended the climb with large painful blisters and bruises on the front of both shins, and numerous places elsewhere on my feet. If the Asolo’s are still what REI has available the next time I head up a peak, I’ll either have to bite the bullet and buy my own boots, or rent elsewhere.