Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Labor Day Weekend and Beyond...

I swear summer just arrived in the park about a month or so ago and now it already feels like fall. Sure, it isn't fall YET, as the equinox isn't until Sept. 22, but those folks who have spent a day or two up on the mountain recently may argue that fall is in full effect. A quick check of telemetry up at Camp Muir over the past few days shows below average temperatures this week. In fact, the thermometer didn't go above 50 degrees and in addition to the cold, the wind speeds have steadily averaged 30-40 mph, with spikes reaching 63, 66 and 71. Brrr...

Average high and low temperatures for the month of August at Paradise are generally 63 and and 43 degrees respectively. These days, however, visitors on Rainier are donning fleece jackets, wool hats and even a scarf or two - one doesn’t need a thermometer to guess that the temperatures have been closer to our average lows than highs. With Labor Day Weekend ahead, let’s hope this trend doesn’t extend much longer. A look at the extended forecast provides some hope, but we'll see... Perhaps next week will be different?

Speaking of next week...The public shelter up at Camp Muir will be closed from Tuesday, September 2 thru September 9th. The closure is to complete historic renovations and repairs to the buildings. Therefore, all climbers should be prepared to camp - all parties will need to bring their own shelter. NO EXCEPTIONS.

Some pros and cons to this colder and also wetter weather:

Pros: There is new snow on the mountain, so things are looking beautiful with the fresh coat of snow. The DC is still in great shape (check out the new conditions report), unlike last year (check out our
archived 2007 DC fall route reports). Remember that climbers had to veer way out onto the Emmons Shoulder and descend below the Cleaver to climb back to Ingraham Flats.

Cons: Alpine Ascent International (AAI) guides reported that it snowed over a foot on the mountain last Tuesday and Wednesday. The drifts were as high as 3 feet too! Fresh snow on the route meant that climbers will once again have to be cautious of avalanches. AAI kicked off a small slab on their descent through Cathedral Gap BUT it wasn't large enough to wipe out a person... Still, we have concern and want you to know.

So everyone, be prepared for cooler temps, rain at lower elevations and snow on the upper mountain. This shouldn't be a problem for those Pacific Northwest souls accustom to this sort of climate, but those visiting from other places (that actually still enjoy summer temps well into September) should be prepared for the wintry conditions.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Summer Snowfall and Slush Cup

What do you get when you combine an unsatiable hunger for ski and snowboard "turns all year" (TAY), a slushy snow slope, a pond and some folks dressed up to the nines in costumes resembling some of Stan Lee's worst superhero nightmares? Give up?...You get the 6th annual Snow Cup! Last Sunday, skiers and boarders gathered on Pinnacle Peak to enjoy some of the last remainders of the summer snow atop Pinnacle Peak, then skiing or boarding down the slope into the waiting pond below (Brrr...)

The TAY enthusiasts will be excited to know that this week's stormy weather (though a disappointment for those climbers stuck on the mountain) brought plenty of fresh snow to the upper mountain, coating the routes and improving conditions for more summer climbing and turns. We heard that it snowed about 6 inches up at Camp Muir, and the wind created snowdrifts almost a foot high in spots! Rangers climbing up Disappointment Cleaver on Friday morning report that climbing the cleaver was much easier than it has been over the past few weeks, and the DC remains in great condition.

Slush Cup was a lively event once again - those folks throw quite a party! Participants almost equaled their spectators, and even the climbers perched atop Castle Peak enjoyed the entertainment, as the costumed skiers and boarders skimmed across the tarn at the base of Pinnacle. Afterwards, the crowd gathered at Reflection Lakes for a tailgate party, feeding skiers and hungry tourists alike.

The TAY crew searches out the best that Mount Rainier has to offer, hitting its creamy white slopes every month of the year. The best part of the whole event - they leave nary a trace of being there. They display love and appreciation for the Mountain and respect for the Park...well done! We look forward to the 7th annual event and will keep our eyes open for the invite next time.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Speed climbing and the Super Sherpa

This summer has seen a flurry of interest in climbing Mount Rainier FAST... Justin Merle set the pace by breaking Chad Kellogg's record (4 hours 59 minutes) by 10 minutes on July 11th. His friend and colleague, Liam O'Sullivan, raised the bar a few weeks later by sprinting up and down the mountain (Paradise to summit and back) in 4 hours 46 minutes, besting Merle by 3 minutes... Last week, Lhaka Gelu Sherpa threw the gauntlet down in hopes of smashing that record. With 13 Everest summits under his belt and a previous Everest speed record (the current record is held by Pemba Dorje Sherpa), Lhakpa certainly had the credentials to do it. But his well-publicized attempt was thwarted by nasty leg cramps on the descent (something that Liam also met with on a prior and unsuccessful ascent) and so our "Super Sherpa" will have to try again another day. I suppose that we'll see him again, and other speed climbers too... But any takers better move fast, as the route is beginning to change in ways that make rapid movement harder and more challenging (but it's still great for the masses that take 2-5 days, so don't worry).

We've also been getting questions about timed ascents to Camp Muir. So for your information, here are a few facts. In 1994, Climbing Ranger Scott Wanek ran from Paradise to the high camp in 51 minutes! Not bad, eh? Most people can't even ski DOWN that fast. But don't feel bad if your normal one way time is something like 4-6 hours, because Scott also had run a personal best 4:11 mile. Of course, Wanek's record had to be broken too, and it was done last year by Climbing Ranger Andy Anderson. Andy quietly posted a 46 minute one way ascent to Camp Muir! Yup, 4,500 feet of gain in 4.5 miles. So what did you do in the last 46 minutes? Michael Phelps might be smashing Olympic records, but it seems the Rainier records are meeting a similar fate this summer too.

Post by Monica and Mike

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Maria Cantwell

Did you realize that there is a phone number any U.S. Senator can call to get public information on the fly? We plebs have 411, but they have something better. Something tailored. Something that addresses their senatorial needs. U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell mentioned this number to me, and shared a cool story about another "famed" senator using it to locate his favorite authors after reading their books. So the story goes, Senator XY would finish a novel and then call the author to say how much he liked their work. Now wouldn't that be cool? Who wouldn't appreciate a phone call from a U.S. senator saying, "Hey, I dug your _____(insert book,record, video, speech, etc.) and thought I'd just tell you." Of course, Maria (or Patty Murray for that matter) hasn't called me yet (nudge, hint, wink) about my book on Mount Rainier. But then again, I'm still waiting for that conciliatory call from John McCain since I aced him out of the 4th place spot on the Men's Journal Tough Guy list (scroll to #5 where he resides)!

Silliness aside, bumping around Camp Muir with Maria Cantwell last summer was definitely a memorable experience. Perhaps because she is such a power broker in the federal government? Or maybe it's because she is rich (by NPS ranger standards - not by Bill Gates standards)? Or maybe it's because she has blue eyes and feminine charm? Who really knows (probably the latter of those three), but I do know that we climbing rangers were quite impressed with her acerbic wit and extremely cool, down to earth demeanor...

This adventure started with a chance encounter at Camp Muir and a few weeks later, I was having breakfast in Seattle with "Maria." There were a number of telling moments that day. For instance, I knew we were off to a good start when she declared, "Just make sure that we have GOOD coffee." In climbing ranger world, "Good coffee," IS an important standard that should be seriously respected! Clearly, Maria was exhibiting good taste and stature.

And since she didn't have a closet full of climbing gear for her upcoming climb, I soon found myself cruising through REI with Maria in tow. While at the rental encounter, another telling moment presented itself. As soon as she tried on a pair of plastic boots, Maria stated, "No way." I mean really, "NO WAY!" Then I realized, who REALLY wants to wear some clunky oversized marshmallow-colored double-liner boots anyway? They were awkward, uncomfortable and terribly unstylish. Soon enough, Maria was modeling a light blue pair of La Sportiva boots that, incidentally, matched her jacket (and eyes) perfectly. Tres chic...

Panache aside, we didn't discuss politics or the National Park Service (that much). We did discuss ways to improve those stinky toilets at Camp Muir (something anyone could agree upon) and the construction debris from the ongoing (and terribly slow) Camp Muir rehabilitation. Otherwise, most of the talk centered on how long and arduous it would be to reach the summit... practical stuff any smart and stylish politician would note!

Speaking of smarts, Maria remained practical throughout the trip. Many of her comments, thoughts, and questions were often unvarnished, and in some regards, innocent and raw. When discussing what it took to climb mountains, I detected some uncertainty surrounding the entire logic behind "pursuing summits." Perhaps in her thinking, why would anyone really want to do this? And if you take away the personal and emotional justifications we climbers craft for ourselves, it is easy to wonder why someone would spend so much money to suffer in the cold, while potentially risking death. Especially since along the way, you're not going to get good coffee, and you'll surely endure little sleep and hard exercise, while working towards something that probably doesn't "really" matter...

But "matter", climbing does, and there were a number of moving moments during those three days with Maria Cantwell on Mount Rainier that told me she clearly "got it." For one, Maria definitely enjoyed being an anonymous citizen helping visitors at Camp Muir. A few folks stopped by and probably didn't even realize who they were talking to. But she also took the time to check out (i.e. nap on) the roof of the ranger station and read magazines. There we were at 10,000 feet on Mount Rainier, with a U.S. senator comfortably letting her hair down with climbers, skiers, day hikers, and coffee-swilling rangers....pretty cool, huh?

And as Rainier often does, its magnificence spoke through her voice. When our party left Ingraham Flats towards the summit, I could hear Maria open up with enthusiasm as her eyes scanned the glacial landscape, "I can't believe such a wild place exists so close. Thank you so much for taking me here; it's REALLY beautiful." Her tone told the story: she was awesomely struck by the raw beauty of Mount Rainier's landscape; I had heard the reverence before and understood its impact.

And for reasons beyond reason, a U.S. senator was completely thankful to be "rest-stepping" up the Emmons Glacier towards a cold windy knoll called "Columbia Crest," moved by the same simplicity and desire that motivates others in the mountains: the land, the people, the beauty, the challenge, the solace.

As for Maria the politician... A little search engine sleuthing revealed many stories, including this piece in the Seattle Times that seemed to capture some of her personal qualities, including a knack for hard work and a "can do" attitude. Maria would quip that there is more to her that anyone could glean on a three day mountain trip. True, but her unending energy and sensible logic were apparent to the rest of the climbing rope.

And when another rope mate started having difficulty with the pace, Maria understood that our team would need to turn around... But that was ok, because she could come back. And though we didn't reach Columbia Crest, I suspect she'll have few problems reaching it this year. That is, if she sets her mind to it and takes a chance. So Maria... How about it... Do we get to see you again on Mount Rainier?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A month of records: Liam O'Sullivan claims new speed record

Less than a month after Justin Merle broke the speed summit record of Mount Rainier from Paradise to Columbia Crest and back, Liam O'Sullivan, a mountain guide employed by International Mountain Guides (IMG), raised the bar once again, beating Merle's time by 3 minutes with a new record of 4 hours, 46 minutes and 29 seconds (FYI: Both Merle and O'Sullivan had small amounts of supplies cached at Camp Muir and dropped crampons on the descent). O'Sullivan left the upper Paradise parking lot at 4:20:08 a.m. and arrived at Camp Muir 1 hr 24 minutes later, putting him well on the way to a new record. O'Sullivan then beat his own personal time to Columbia Crest by 5 minutes, with a one way time of 3:11:22. On a previous attempt this month, O'Sullivan had been on pace to beat the record, but then faced fierce cramps on the descent which prevented him from setting a new record. This was almost the case again, but he was able to pull through this time.

"Any long or awkward step (which the Cleaver has plenty of by now) would cause me to cramp, so I descended cautiously to Muir, by which time I had lost all but 1 minute of the lead I had gained on Justin Merle's pace. I descended the (unfortunately) still firm Muir Snowfield, reaching Pebble neck-and-neck with Justin's time. Then battling the rocky, stepped trail, I commenced. Below Glacier Vista I kicked, breaking away from the pace, opted for the more direct east side of Alta Vista (complete with skin-shredding steep asphalt descent), and reached the trailhead in 4:46:29!"

Climbing conditions on Disappoinment Cleaver (DC) are some of the best conditions seen in years, which could account for the recent trend of speed ascents this month, including record attempts by O'Sullivan and Alpine Ascents International (AAI) Guide Michael Horst, and an amazing combination bicycle ride and speed ascent by Randall Nordfors. Despite the phenomenal conditions on the DC all summer, the season is moving along and things are beginning to break up, so future speed ascent attempts may be more difficult due to less direct route and slower climbing conditions. However, this may not stop would-be record breakers like Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa, a guide with Alpine Ascents International (AAI) and previous Everest record holder. Check out a recent article by The Seattle Times, covering this new competition for the "Rainier Speed Summit".

In addition to his record breaking climb, O'Sullivan has had a pretty good month - he made his 100th summit of Rainier on a tough Kautz route in less than ideal conditions, he guided Nordfors' Puget Sound to Summit trip and now begins a new path: medical school. After 10 years of mountain guiding on Mount Rainier and around the globe, we wish Liam the best and look forward to hearing more great things from him in the future.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Fort Lewis Chinook Pilots Climb to Summit

Pilots Richard Bovey, Bryan Campbell and Scott Salkovics from the 159th alpha Company Army Reserve, accompanied by two climbing rangers, spent four days at Mount Rainier training and climbing to the summit via the Emmons Winthrop Route. All three men have trained at Mount Rainier in high altitude rescue and provided critical support in Search and Rescue. In addition to their assistance with SARs, Bovey, Campbell and Salkovics are also huge supporters and fans of Mount Rainier. Bovey and Campbell have done volunteer work to help restore two of the lookout towers and all are avid outdoorsmen. Although they have all hiked in the Park extensively (Campbell completed the Wonderland Trail in a seven day period) none had summitted Mount Rainier.

This trip afforded the pilots the opportunity to look at many of the training and rescue locations on the ground, as well as train in crevasse rescue, glacier travel and route finding on the upper mountain. The conditions for the climb where ideal - great weather, excellent food and lodging (the hut and barbecue at Camp Schurman). This is a special thanks to them and to the U.S. Army unit that supports climbers and search and rescue operations on Mount Rainier. There is more information about the unit and its work from previous trainings and missions.

Photo and post by David Gottlieb