descent route:Winthrop Glacier to entire Emmons Glacier.
members of trip: Mike Bannister, Ricardo Moreno, and Zach Taylor.
14,411' Mt. Rainier
photo- Mt. Rainier and Little Tahoma peak. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
Mt. Rainier rises 14,411 feet above sea level just to the east of the Pacific Ocean in Washington. It is the highest peak in the Cascade mountain range, the highest peak in Washington state, and holds the distinction of having the longest continous vertical drop in the lower 48. Rainier is surrounded on all sides by large, steep, crevassed glaciers, and steep terrain of all sorts.
If you ignore the 14,411' altitude Rainier has more in common with the peaks of the Himilayas or Alaska than the rest of the mountains in the lower 48, besides a couple other glaciated volcanos that neighbor Rainier in the Cascades. It is a big mountain in every sense of the word. I have wanted to climb this mountain since I first started mountaineering. Mike, Pollo, and I had tried to climb and snowboard/ski Rainier two springs ago, unsuccessfully. We sat at camp Muir for three days in a blizzard, tried to climb the Ingraham glacier with a short weather window, and then got driven off it by more weather before we could get near the top.
Suffice it to say, climbing Mt. Rainier and snowboarding off the top was one of the highlights of all my mountaineering adventures. We could hardly ask for better weather. Sunshine prevailed almost continously for the three days we were up there.
Mike, Pollo, and I took 15 days in the Pacific Northwest this time with intentions of climbing and riding several peaks but Rainier was the priority. When we first got out there Rainier was in a storm cycle so we climbed and rode Shasta in California instead. Then when weather looked like it was clearing up and high pressure was moving in we made our way to Rainier from Cali over 5/31 to 6/2. We waited out the weather outside of the park just camping and messing around in the rain.
photo- Pollo and Mike hanging out at camp near Mt. Rainier. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- My tent near Mt. Rainier. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
6/3/2011- We drove into Rainier National Park from the southwest side so it took us about an hour and a half to make it to the Glacier Basin Ranger Station. We got our climbing permits, blue bags, and last minute info from the climbing rangers and then made our way up to the trailhead.
We were off and skinning by late afternoon. As we got up closer to treeline and began winding into Glacier Basin we noticed a lot of wet avalanche activity that was occuring because of the heat and direct sun. Being worried about instabilities in the upper basin we decided to camp in Glacier Basin for the night and then head up to Camp Schurman after things froze up over night.
photo- Mike Bannister(left) and Ricardo Moreno (right) in Glacier Basin. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Pollo hanging out at Glacier Basin camp. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Zach Taylor hanging out at the Glacier Basin camp. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011.
photo- Mike Bannister and Zach Taylor skinning through Glacier Basin. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011.
We watched another avalanche run in the basin and several groups of people touring past us ignoring the conditions and pushing higher while we ate some mountain houses and enjoyed the sunshine. We went to bed early for the push up to Camp Schurman the next day.
6/4/2011- The sun woke us up pretty early and so we packed up camp and began the skin up to Camp Schurman. It was another sunny, warm day and I was able to skin in a t-shirt most of the time. We skinned up the Inter Glacier to a ridgeline that divides the Inter Glacier and the Emmons Glacier. Peering over we could see where some people had skied down onto the Emmons and thn skinned up to camp Schurman. We considered doing this but I had read about another route in my Rainier guidebook and heard a friend talk about using the same route on her climb of Rainier last summer. She had described it as sketchy loose downclimbing in a chute in August. However it was early June of a record snow year so I expected it to be covered in snow.
We decided to head up to the head of the Interglacier to find this chute. It looked like a line that would avoid glacier travel on the Emmons on the approach and might present some fun riding. We topped out on the Interglacier and looked down on Camp Schurman. With a little poking around we figured our way into a steep chute that came out right behind the ranger camp at Camp Schurman.
photo- Zach Taylor riding the 4th class chute above Camp Schurman. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011.
photo- Mike Bannister in the 4th class chute. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011.
photo- Mike Bannister riding the 4th class chute. photo by Ricarfo Moreno, 2011.
We set up camp and hung out in the sun for a bit. We had Camp Schurman all to ourselves for about an hour. We watched a skier and snowboarder making jump turns down the same chute we had just ridden. After they arrived I walked over and started talking to them. It was a climbing ranger and his girlfriend that had just arrived for an eight day stint at Schurman. The ranger said that the chute we had come down was called "4th class chute." It was fun. The chute provided the steepest turns on Rainier and doing it with my overnight mountaineering/glacier travel bag made the jump turns a little more spicy than normal.
After a few more hours Camp Schurman began to fill up with other climbing parties. We ate some brats for dinner and took some photos. The Interglacier divides the lower Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers. Camp Schurman sits at the head of the Inter Glacier so the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers push together just above camp into one large mass of snow riddled with crevasses, seracs, and cliffs. The views here on a clear day are breathtaking.
photo- A look at the upper Emmons/Winthrop Glacier from Camp Schurman. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011
photo- A look at the lower Emmons glacier from Camp Schurman. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011
photo- A look at the lower Winthrop glacier from Camp Schurman. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Mike Bannister and Zach Taylor hanging out at Camp Schurman. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011.
We were up just before sunrise. A couple groups were already out on the glacier and we could see their headlamps above camp. We could see the lights of Seattle 9500 feet below us to the west. We roped up and began climbing. The sunrise was spectacular.
photo- sunrise over the Casades. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011
photo- Zach Taylor on the Emmons glacier. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011.
We made good time up the glacier, passing multiple parties on the way up. The last party we passed climbed behind us for the rest of the day. They were a group of older ski mountaineers from the Washington area; Mary, Colin, and Julie. We made small talk with them at different points throughout the climb as they followed us to the summit. One of the ladies mentioned that she had climbed Rainier almost 50 times!
Some thin high clouds formed above us for the last half of the climb. Our sun disappeared for a while but the clouds did not really build any more and they only misted snow showers on us while we climbed. The change in weather did make the last bit windy and cold though.
After about five hours of climbing we crested the crater rim of Rainier and stepped off the glacier. Smiles were big and all around. The steam vents coming out of the crater seem to keep the crater rim fairly melted out so our group unroped, dropped packs, and walked the last 150 feet or so along the crater rim on a mix of dirt and snow to Rainier's summit!
photo- Zach Taylor at the top of the Emmons Glacier on the crater rim of Mt. Rainier. photo by Riacrdo Moreno, 2011
photo- Zach Taylor(left) and Mike Bannister(right) on the summit of Rainier. photo by Riacrdo Moreno, 2011
photo- Pollo striking a summit pose on Mt. Rainier. photo by Mike Bannister, 2011.
photo- Pollo walking back down the crater rim towards our gear and the descent. photo by Mike Bannister, 2011.
We could see the Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean to our west, Mt. Baker and Mt. Shukson to our north, and Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens to our south. After enjoying the summit for a few minutes we walked back down to our gear and prepared for the descent.
Coming from Colorado I had never ridden on a crevassed glacier before besides my last time out to Rainier. In the ski mountaineering community the standard seems to be to rope up on the climb up of a glacier and to unrope for the ski down. The idea behind this is that the likelihood of punching through a snowbridge and falling in a crevasse is high while climbing and all your body weight is coming down directly through your feet. The likelihood of puching into a crevasse while riding/skiing on a glacier is fairly low while skiing because your weight is distributed over a much greater surface area.
After taking a glacier ski/snowboard mountaineering course from the Colorado Mountain School this previous winter and getting advice from other experienced glacier ski mountaineers over the previous months/years we chose not to rope up for the descent based on the glacier coverage/conditions. Never the less it was pretty intimidating putting my pack on and strapping into my board to ride back down the largest glacier on Mt. Rainier.
We noticed Colin, Mary, and Julie just below us on the crater rim. I rode down to them while Mike and Pollo were still getting ready. We talked for a few minutes and decided to all ski down together when Mike and Pollo arrived. I think everyone was glad to have a group of six instead of 3 on the glacier on the way down.
It was really cool to have gotten to climb the glacier and ski down with such a strong, experienced group as these three were. Even though these three people were all in the 50s they climbed with us for most of the day at a similar pace and the ski skills on the way down were atleast as strong as ours. Julie had summited Everest and Denali amongst others and Mary was probably a better skier at 55 than I am a rider at 26. I hope when I am that age I will still have the strength and skills to do these types of things too. It was quite inspiring.
I took a deep breath and the six of us were off skiing/riding down the glacier. Enjoy the pics!
photo- Mike Bannister skiing the Emmons Glacier. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Pollo skiing the Emmons. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Mary on the Emmons. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo Colin on the Emmons with Little Tahoma Peak in the background. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Mary skiing the Emmons. photo by Mike Bannister, 2011.
photo- Mike Bannister skiing the Emmons Glacier on Mt. Rainier. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011
photo- Zach Taylor on the Emmons Glacier. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011
photo- Zach Taylor riding Rainier. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011.
photo- Great shot of Mike. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011.
photo- Ricardo Moreno(Pollo) skiing the Emmons. photo by Mike Bannister, 2011.
photo- Zach Taylor getting air off an ice cliff on the Emmons Glacier. photo by Mike Bannister, 2011.
We all made it safely back to Camp Schurman just as the sun was coming back out. We said our goodbyes to the other group as they left pretty quickly. Pollo, Mike, and I hung out at camp for a few hours talking to David, one of the climbing rangers, and enjoying our summit and the beautiful weather. David mentioned that between himself and the other ranger there they had over 150 ski/snowboard descents of Mt. Rainier! David was primarily a snowboarder. Snowboard mountaineers are few and far between so I enjoyed talking "shop" with him and getting some advice on snowboard boots for mountaineering. We definitely got to meet a lot of badass mountaineers on this trip. It was pretty cool to get to talk to so many people like David, Julie, and Mary up on the mountain.
Eventually we packed up the tent, shouldered our packs, and readied for the descent. David recommended that we ski the Emmons in its entirety instead of crossing back over to the Interglacier. He said usually it is too crevassed but this early in the year he said it was in great condition for skiing and would be a more aesthetic line. He was right. We dropped into the lower Emmons (in T- shirts!) and rode it in its entirety.
photo- looking up at Rainier from the lower Emmons glacier. photo by Mike Bannister, 2011.
photo- Pollo below the Emmons glacier. photo by Mike Bannister, 2011.
Once we were off the Emmons glacier we contoured north, over a ridgeline, and crossed a creek to get back to the main Glacier Basin trail about a mile above the trailhead. We walked/skied/rode out the trail. The last bit of the trail was too flat to ride and so I decided to splitboard "ski" out the last bit. Of course Pollo and Mike were faster than me here so they were already back at the car when I very gracefully "skied" in tour mode with no skins(on my splitboard), backward into a tree at a pretty good pace. It did not hurt to bad fortunately. I think my pride was more hurt than anything and on the plus side for me no one was around to watch my tree slam.
We got back to the car, yardsaled all our gear, and enjoyed some well deserved Rainier beers.
photo- Zach Taylor enjoying a Rainier beer in the Rainier parking lot. photo by Ricardo Moreno, 2011.
While we were sorting gear and drinking beer in the parking lot another group of ski mountaineers came off the mountain. It turned out to be Amar Andalkar, the creator of www.skimountaineer.com , probably the most comprehensive website for ski mountaineering in the Cascades out there. I used his site a good deal while planning the trip and we were happy to thank him for the website when they showed up at the trailhead.
The next day we camped in Hood River, Wa at a campground on the Columbia River. We grilled steaks, drank wine and beer, and celebrated our summit. Afterwords we made our way to Mt. Hood for one last hurrah before heading home and back to work.
photo- Camp on the Columbia River after the Rainier climb. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Mike Bannister celebrating the Rainier climb. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.
photo- Sunset in southern Washington after our climb. photo by Zach Taylor, 2011.