Sometimes circumstances push me toward an activity I would normally not consider. Two years ago, it was trad climbing; last year, backpacking; this time I combined the two, both roping up and camping to do Mount Rainier, an obscure bucket-list peak in west-central Washington. According to the park’s insane permit system, you have to meet the arbitrarily-bestowed approval of the climbing rangers to legally climb Rainier by yourself. Though I was tempted to poach it, Ted, whom I met a couple years ago, was also interested in climbing it, so I decided to play by the rules.
After showing up at the main climbing office at 6:00 AM for a (free) walk-in camping permit and a (not free) “climbing pass,” I killed some time, did a lot of driving, and met my partner at the White River campground/trailhead, the start for east-side climbing routes. I had chosen to do the Emmons Glacier route, which is popular and straightforward but, because it starts lower and is not the standard guide route, is less crowded than the standard Disappointment Cleaver. From somewhere around 4,000 feet, it follows a gully and snow bowl to Steamship Prow, a large choss-horn splitting the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers, then climbs their confluence for 5,000 feet to the summit.
Because Rainier weather is unpredictable and my partner had to buy plane tickets in advance, we planned to pack up to Camp Shurman at the base of the glacier, then give ourselves two potential summit days. After sleeping in the backpackers’ lot, we crammed our packs with two nights’ worth of food and vast quantities of gear (pickets, screws, rope, harnesses, prusiks), then started up the trail to Camp Shurman, a vertical mile away. The route to the base of the snow follows a popular hiking trail, so the crowd was a mixture of day-hikers and climbers in heavy packs. Some climbers were also wearing their heavy boots, and learning the painful lesson that mountaineering boots are not made for hiking.
The official trail ends at the Glacier Gulch campground, and a large snowfield shortly above seems to effectively deter day-hikers (for no good reason). Ted switched from pseudo-sandals to boots, while I stuck with trail runners. Steamship Prow looked close, but hiking up this endless snowfield, I was reminded the difficulty of gaging distance and progress on Rainier’s bulk. Even after descending it, the 5,000 foot climb from Shurman to the summit did not look like 5,000 feet to me.
Separate paths converge to a boot-path as the snowfield curved left, and we began passing other groups; we were even passed by one, an energetic college miler impatiently leading two slower friends. After climbing some steeper snow next to some semi-glacial ice, we reached a bare choss ridge, where we sat around eating and talking with a couple other groups before descending to the lower Emmons glacier and walking around a couple of crevasses to Shurman at the Prow’s bare point.
Many groups apparently rope up here, but it seemed like overkill for side-hilling down some volcanic mud and choss, then crossing the nearly-flat and tame part of the glacier to camp. I stuck with trail runners, but did take my axe off my pack.
Reaching Shurman mid-afternoon, we signed in with the permanent ranger in his CCC-built stone hut, staked a claim in the tent city on the snow, then found a sheltered spot in the rocks just above to hang out. Like any place filled with similar people doing “vacation-y” things they enjoy, it was a generally pleasant crowd, and from a warm perch above them, I could listen to them going about their business while enjoying the view.
I had originally hoped, time permitting, to cross the lower Emmons glacier to climb Little Tahoma from Shurman, but it looked like a dangerous-to-impassable crevasse maze.
As soon as the sun was obscured by either clouds or the rock-dropping ridge to the northwest, the solar oven turned off and the actual air temperature asserted itself. With many people planning to start at midnight (“I’m heading up tonight” is the camp vernacular for “I’m climbing the peak tomorrow”), others were seeking their tents. After packing my bag and setting my alarm for a more sane 3:00 AM, I did likewise, and was amazingly able to sleep shortly after sunset. I barely noticed as Ted crawled into the tent after some full-moon photography, but was woken around midnight by the happily-chatting early parties, and slept fitfully until my alarm.
Fortunately it was not that cold overnight, because I was saving time by having a cold breakfast of peanut butter Pop-Tarts (sometimes I love America). With all the gear-futzing, we did not start until 4:00, picking up the earlier parties’ boot-pack out through the runt camp on Emmons Flats and up the glacier. I used my headlamp for all of about 20 minutes, then continued up the semi-slush in the endless northern dawn.
We began passing other parties shortly after sunrise. Even the best climbers are probably not fast roped together in groups of four or five, and Rainier, dominating the Seattle skyline, attracts plenty of less-experienced people. The boot-pack and occasional wands made the route obvious, so there was little thought involved in the climb. There were several crevasse-crossings higher up, but only one that was vaguely intimidating, a big step over a small crack leading to a much wider under-snow chamber, the route leading across its overhanging ceiling for ten feet on either side. The route may have to be significantly changed once this bridge collapses, since the crevasse extends to both sides.
The glacier is tamer toward Rainier’s rounded summit, and we followed a fairly direct line to the saddle between the main summit and the shorter Liberty Cap, crossing under some calving snow before turning southwest to the summit. This side of the summit is a short, bare choss-mound, so a crowd of people were unroping and removing gear before struggling up the loose red-gray dirt. Reaching the crest of the dirt, we finally saw the small crater with its steam vents, and the deep trench dug by parties climbing the standard route.
There was a steady crowd on the summit, and with warm sun and nearly no wind, we hung out for over an hour acting strange: drinking Rainier beer (“the Coors of the Pacific Northwest”), posing for ridiculous pictures, building human pyramids, etc. After exhausting our collective imagination, we returned to the base of the choss-pile, peed on rocks, and put our gear back on for the descent.
Experience on snow makes much more of a speed difference going down than up, so Ted and I passed many larger and/or novice parties, either paralleling the boot-pack or taking shortcuts. The snow was still in good shape up high, but became an irregular, ankle-deep, churned-up mess lower down. After struggling past the last significant crevasses, we unroped to plunge-step and glissade back into camp. We hung out awhile longer, but as the day’s (or night’s) crowded packed up and descended and new strangers arrived, the camp became foreign. It was time to go.