Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Emmons/Winthrop Route Update - 6/19/2019

Climbing conditions on the Emmons-Winthrop route have been slightly variable due to the large changes in freezing levels over the last week.  Climbers have generally reported good, firm conditions on the ascent, with conditions ranging widely on the descent: from mid-shin plunge-stepping, to icy patches requiring running-pro (ice screws).  While the latter may be most applicable in areas where the route runs immediately above large crevasses, and when conditions would be challenging to self-arrest a fall, it is a technique that parties should be prepared to employ if necessary.

We're entering a rapid transition in crevasse bridging, and numerous climbers have been discovering how easy it is to misread the crevasse hazard.  As crevasses continue to weaken with the warm weather, the current boot track may not be the best route. Investigate crevasse crossings and be open to the option of walking around the end of the crevasse rather than over a thin bridge.

The increasing popularity of ski-mountaineering descents on the Emmons-Winthrop poses numerous existential challenges to aspiring ski-mountaineers:  Is it worth it to essentially travel un-roped, at speeds where it's hard to assess terrain subleties that imply a hidden crevasse, with few contingencies should a crevasse fall occur?  While some routes on Mount Rainier may not be technically more challenging than a typical 'blue' run at a ski area, it's important to recognize that if your skills aren't up to the challenge of skiing or riding in highly variable snow conditions, with a heavy pack, after climbing 10,000 feet, in terrain where even a minor hip check may immediately result in an uncontrollable slide above significant crevasses, then the upper Emmons-Winthrop may not be an advisable objective.  

Questionable route selection on the Emmons-Winthrop Glacier
While the ski tracks above were likely made prior to the crevasse widening to it's size in the photo, it illustrates the difficulty in assessing the terrain.  Make conservative choices, and realize that there may be significant non-event feedback that is affecting your decision making.  Many skiers (and climbers) don't realize how close to "the edge" they actually are.  If you've skied without a guide in the French Alps, you might be ready.  If not, approach a ski-mo descent with a highly conservative mindset.

Parties can increase their 'margin of safety' by knowing the route well (come climb the route before you try to ski it) as well as being highly proficient in their route assessment skills, crevasse rescue skills, and glacial skiing skills.  If its 'natural' for you to scrub speed just before a steep rollover, you might be applying ski-area skills inappropriately, as you might be scrubbing speed right on top of a crevasse lid!   Check out the blog post specific to ski-mountaineering published last year...

Rainier Climbing Blog 2018 - Considerations for skiers

Parties with single-push ski-mo objectives should remember that a climbing permit, as well as paying the cost-recovery fee is still applicable, and helps rangers know where folks are on the mountain in the case of an incident.

While the hazards of ski-mountaineering are very real, so are the rewards, and it's an excellent approach tool for the InterGlacier and for those looking to increase the whoohoo factor on the descent back to Glacier Basin!

Fryingpan Glacier - Little Tahoma Conditions - 6/18/2019

The Fryingpan Creek trail (Wonderland Trail) is snow free from the Fryingpan Creek Trailhead to the footbridge that crosses Fryingpan Creek.  The trail from there to Summerland is still partially snow-covered.  Rangers ascended the Fryingpan Glacier to K Spire on June 18th.  It appears that Little Tahoma has been receiving quite a bit of climbing traffic, judging by the numerous tracks across the Fryingpan Glacier to the notch above Whitman Crest. Below are a few pictures and observations:

In green is the approximate approach used by rangers to reach the Fryingpan Glacier.  This route is generally safer than the steeper slope on climbers left (red arrow).  The steeper slope features large and dangerous moats that are difficult to see when looking downhill and has contributed to glissading-related accidents in the past.  Avoid that slope. 
There is currently running water in several spots as you make your way up to the Fryingpan Glacier.  The glacier itself is in good shape, but there are areas with large and thinly-veiled cracks that present remarkably little surface expression.  It is highly recommended that parties rope-up on the Fryingpan and be prepared for crevasse rescue.  This is the time of year that crevasses are melting out and present the greatest 'trap door' hazard, especially when the snow is warm and soft.

A climbing ranger scoping out the Fryingpan Glacier with Little Tahoma, Mount Rainier, and K Spire in the distance.
The route that most parties have been taking across the Fryingpan stays high, just below Whitman Crest, and traverses a steeper slope that is subject to rockfall off of the Crest. It also runs parallel to several large crevasses.  Consider giving some thought to alternative routes rather than automatically traveling in others' boot prints.  A boot pack does not always indicate the best or safest route.  Regardless of the specific route taken over the Fryingpan, parties will at times be forced to walk in parallel to crevasses, so brush up on how to travel 'en echelon' to increase the security of your rope team.

The Fryingpan Glacier from the summit of K Spire.

Another view of the Fryingpan from the top of K Spire.
While rangers did not climb Little Tahoma on this patrol, they talked to several parties of climbers and skiers that did summit.  Overall, the route appears to be in great shape. Please remember to practice good Leave No Trace ethics in this zone.  As snow melts out on the lower meadows, stick to the trail or durable surfaces (snow, rocks) where possible to protect the fragile alpine vegetation.  And remember, payment of the Climbing Cost Recovery Fee, as well as registering and obtaining a permit from a Mount Rainier Wilderness Information Center, is required for climbing Little Tahoma.

Happy Solstice!

Sunday, June 16, 2019

West - North Side Conditions Photos - 6/16/2019

Left to right: Sunset Ridge, Sunset Amphitheater, Puyallup Cleaver, Tahoma Glacier, Tahoma Cleaver.

On Sunday our helicopter crew took some aerial photos of the west and northwest side of the mountain on their flight up to North Cascades National Park. The hot weather appears to have taken its toll on Liberty Ridge.  Reports from several parties that approached Liberty Ridge over the weekend stated that the lower ridge is mostly rock and that there is near constant rockfall on the route.  Conditions turned most of these parties away.

Left to right: Ptarmigan Ridge, Mowich Face, Sunset Ridge.   
Left to right: Ptarmigan Ridge, North Mowich Headwall, Central Mowich Face, Edmunds Headwall, Sunset Ridge.

Left to right: Ptarmigan Ridge, North Mowich Icefall, North Mowich Headwall, Central Mowich Face, Edmunds Headwall, Sunset Ridge.

Ptarmigan Ridge in the center.  Mowich Face on the right.

Left to right: Curtis Ridge, Willis Wall, Liberty Ridge, Ptarmigan Ridge, Mowich Face.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Disappointment Cleaver Update, June 9th

The Cleaver has a fresh coat.
After almost a week of parties not making it to the summit via the DC Route (due to stormy weather and higher avalanche hazard), groups made it to the top today!  There's a smearing of new snow covering most of the rocky portions of the route (Cathedral Gap and the Disappointment Cleaver itself) making for great cramponing. 

Current track log, but keep it mind it changes frequently this time of year!
The route currently rolls out of Camp Muir, across the Cowlitz Glacier (keep an eye out for occasional rockfall just out of camp and just before Cathedral Gap) and up to Ingraham Flats.  From the Flats, climbers have been heading up glacier fairly high, almost to 11,400 feet before traversing across the Ingraham Glacier and onto the Disappointment Cleaver.  Don't linger on this traverse - it's another place prone to rock and ice falling from above.  Once on the cleaver, the route ascends the spine, or the snowfield climber's left of the spine, until the top at about 12,400'.  The top of the cleaver is a great place to take a break.  Since the route traverses from the top of the cleaver out across the Ingraham Glacier to the top of Gibraltar Rock - and this traverse is prone to icefall from above - it's best to take breaks before or after this portion of the route. 

The traverse above the Cleaver to Camp Comfort (climbers in the middle for scale) - notice the large seracs looming above!
Once at Camp Comfort (the saddle formed by the top of Gibraltar Rock connecting with the upper mountain at about 12,800') the route switchbacks almost directly up to the crater rim.  There's a couple of steeper sections with small crevasse crossings on the upper mountain - don't be hesitant to place running protection or belay short pitches when the surface conditions are such that team-arrest would be impossible if someone on the rope team were to fall into the crevasse. 

Be aware that the "route" can change daily, especially when the freezing level goes to above 10,000 feet.  Often times climbers will be confronted with multiple boot packs and old stray wands and have to make navigation decisions for themselves.  Just remember: there's no guarantee that a crevasse bridge that you cross on the way up will be there on the way down.  Always be looking for alternative paths. 

Looking down on Gibraltar Rock.

Lastly, it's the best and busiest time of year to be on the DC Route!  Try to remember and smile to your fellow climbers while on route - effective communication makes everyone safer on the mountain.  Planning who will step uphill or stay in the boot pack, when to pause on switchbacks, and planning strategic snack breaks facilitates smooth summit bids.  Come on out and enjoy prime time on the mountain!

Emmons-Winthrop Approach 6/9/2019

Climber on the trail to Glacier Basin

The approach to Glacier Basin is beginning to melt out. There are lingering patches of snow starting at the 5,000' elevation, just past the Emmons Moraine Trail. The snow becomes continuous starting at 5,500' just before reaching Glacier Basin. Hiker traffic up and down has compacted the snow and made it easy to identify where the trail goes.

View of the Inter Glacier looking down from the Prow
The Inter Glacier has good snow coverage, and crevasses are not yet visible on the surface. The last storm cycle brought wind drifted snow depositions of   3" - 6" deep. The forecast is calling for a big warm-up, so expect to see soft wet conditions over the next few days. As the freezing levels rise to near 14,000' this week, be aware of changing conditions and the possibility of loose wet avalanches. 

The Lower Emmons Glacier below Camp Schurman

The bivy sites at Camp Curtis are melting out, with minimal fresh snow from the most recent storm on the ridge. The lower Emmons saw a similar amount of snow accumulation as the Inter Glacier, making for relatively easy travel conditions from Camp Curtis to Camp Schurman.

Climbers descending from Camp Schurman

Crevasses on the Emmons Glacier are beginning to open up. We have witnessed several climbers punch through close to Camp Schurman. This is the first portion of real glacier travel and parties should rope-up prior to making their final climb up to Camp Schurman on the Emmons. As these crevasses grow with the warm weather, the current boot track may not be the best route. Investigate crevasse crossings and be open to the option of walking around the end of the crevasse rather than over a thin bridge.  See you on the eastside!  Where the sunrise is early, and the sunset rolls down Curtis Ridge!

June on Rainier

We've had glimpses of summer over the last month with unusually warm temperatures in May, but winter is not ready to completely release its hold on the mountain. It's spring on Rainier, weather forecasts are fickle and freezing levels have fluctuated between 5000 and 13000 feet.

We've had a fair bit of snow and wind this last week on the upper mountain and temperatures are looking to rise rapidly over the next few days. Pull that avalanche gear back out of your winter gear stash, keep an eye on the forecasts (and take them with a grain of salt), and time your climbs appropriately. Be ready to assess and turn around if conditions call for it. With this snow and wind, many cracks that were opening up may have thin bridges hiding them again and still other cracks yet to open up or even give a hint of their whereabouts have taken more than one climber by surprise. 

And remember, make sure your team is ready to care for itself in these drastically changing conditions. We've had a lot of activity with search and rescues and close calls on the mountain these past couple of weeks. Your team's preparedness could save your life. It starts with your trip planning and preparation. Choose a route that is appropriate for your team's skill level, train up on your fitness and hone in your skills (e.g. glacier travel technique, crevasse rescue, wilderness first aid).  As you climb: manage your risk, maintain situational awareness, check in with yourself and partner(s). Remember that the summit is only halfway. If things aren't lining up, remember that the mountain will be there later. 

Mount Rainier can offer us an escape, mental and physical challenge, and solitude many of us crave. And it can be swift to remind us of the natural consequences the modern world has begun to shelter us from. Remember that and respect it.