Tuesday, July 31, 2018

D.C. Route Update 7/29

The only thing that is consistent on the D.C. this year is change. With the recent warm temperatures the route has been evolving rapidly. Where there was once multiple options to navigate through broken up sections there are now only paths with significant exposure to hazards.

The main area of concern is 'The Popcorn' at 12,500 feet. Popcorn is a reference to large blocks of ice stacked up with little support. If one block shifts, all the other ones move as well. This particular popcorn section sits above a large crevasse cavern and thus is not supported from below. Climbers entering the Popcorn expose themselves to both the potential for ice fall from above and for the route to collapse underneath them. Either of these would be an unsurvivable event.

For those that have been following this blog, the 'plug' discussed on the last update has collapsed into the crevasse cavern and the route now travels ~150' further uphill.

Photo of the Popcorn section. Note the large cavern below the ice blocks.

This is a typical low-probability, high-consequence risk management problem. Each climber needs to decide if they choose to accept this risk or not. The rangers at Camp Muir have been instructing climbers to look at the feature for themselves and have a discussion amongst their team about the risk. If any member of the team decides that climbing that section is too hazardous, the whole rope team should respect that decision and descend. Approximately one-third of the teams that make it to the Popcorn have decided that the risk is not acceptable and they have retreated from that point.

A ranger climbs through the Popcorn

Additionally, if this area collapses while you are above it, returning to camp will require several thousand feet of extra uphill climbing. The only other known option to return to Camp Muir involves climbing back up to 13,500' and descending to Camp Comfort at the top of Gibraltar Rock. From here, you will have to follow an old, unmarked trail to get back to the Disappointment Cleaver. If you are planning to climb this week, be ready for things to change rapidly and have a reserve of energy to overcome these potential challenges.

Approximate climbing route as of July 29, 2018.

With all the discussion of the route finding issues it's important to note that other hazards still require attention. Rockfall hazard exists in Cathedral Gap as well as getting on/off the base of Disappointment Cleaver. Climbers have been injured by rockfall this summer. Crevasse fall is, of course, an ever present concern on the glaciers as well.

It's important to come to Mt. Rainier with a good understanding of the risks inherent in mountain climbing and the hazardous areas unique to the D.C. route.