Friday, August 10, 2018

Updates before the Weekend!

The busiest time of year has now passed on the mountain and things have started to settle down.  Guide services have finished up with their trips on the Emmons-Winthrop Route and many independents have shifted over to climbing the Kautz Glacier and Disappointment Cleaver Routes.  Here's some updates for conditions on these routes:
Also, here's a write-up on navigating around Mount Rainier.  There's definitely a 'science' behind finding your way back off the mountain in a storm, but there's a key piece that's all 'art' - which is at the heart of climbing up and down mountains in general.  

Have a great weekend!

Disappointment Cleaver update -- 8/9

Warm temperatures and late season conditions have combined to create increasingly difficult conditions on the Disappointment Cleaver route. Weeks of above average temperatures have thinned snow bridges and widened crevasse crossings, making the route more circuitous and prone to change. Overall, however, the route remains in similar conditions from recent blog posts.

Many of the technically challenging sections of the route are becoming more hazardous. Getting onto Disappointment Cleaver above Ingraham Flats (11,200') is a serious endeavor. Rockfall has been prevalent at all hours of the day and night; this hazard is best mitigated by limiting your exposure to it. The glacier-to-rock transition area is also steep, icy, and crevassed, making the timing and location of the rope transition a challenge. Shortening the rope too early exposes the group to additional crevasse fall hazard, while adjusting it too late increases overhead rockfall hazard by stopping in the danger zone. All of this requires competent ropework and speedy transitions to reduce the time spent below loose rock. Unfortunately, these transitions require practice and it takes a keen eye to anticipate the best place to do it.  There is no simple answer when it comes to managing the co-mingled hazards in this zone.

Many groups have been surprised by the amount of time required to climb and return to Muir and have decided to spend an extra night at Muir after their climb. Planning for a three-day climb at this time of year might help set you up for success and not overdue.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Navigating Mount Rainier

So how do the climbing rangers navigate the intimidating glaciated peak of Mount Rainier on a daily basis? Mountain navigation is a complex skillset that is developed over years of practice and training, but a few key concepts and tools might aid you in your next adventure.
Digital navigation has its perks.

First and foremost, keen observational skills are mandatory. Being aware of your surroundings, looking for and identifying features ("oooh, that's Cathedral Gap!"), and recognizing hazardous terrain is the most critical skill to develop. Identifying these on a map and orienting yourself to the landscape helps ingrain these details and make future decision-making easier. Using an altimeter and paper map may not be as fashionable these days, but it is less reliant on batteries; it is still a requisite skill for mountain goers.

For digital reassurance of our navigation decisions, many of us use mapping apps on smartphones like Gaia, Avenza, Trailmap, and TopoMaps+, rather than carrying a GPS during the summer months. These apps are relatively cheap (especially compared to other stand-alone GPS devices), and you can pre-download maps onto your phone before your trip. Once in the mountains, it is easy to track and insert waypoints while conserving battery in airplane mode. We always have at least one phone tracking our route during the climb. Certain apps allow you to easily share waypoints and tracklogs as well.

That being said, there are many other GPS apps and stand-alone GPS devices that work well.  Be aware that certain tracking settings can eat through battery power relatively quickly, especially if you have an older phone or if you are using it in the cold (which is likely).  It's a good idea to have backup batteries, a rechargeable battery pack, or a backup device.

The other bonus for using a phone is--in the event of an accident--your phone may be able to connect to 911 from the upper mountain (all cell towers are required to pick up the call regardless of your cellphone carrier). Conserving battery life for the phone's primary purpose is a recommended strategy. Many parties choose to have one person track their team's climb on one phone while conserving battery life on everyone else's phones.

Keep in mind that you're probably only going to "need" your GPS in a storm, which can happen any time of year. A protective case and waterproofing should be considered mandatory.  Practice using your GPS with gloves on.  Also, can you use it when there's water on the screen?  These are things to know and learn before a entering into a stressful situation like being on a steep glacier near crevasses in a white-out. It is important to remember that no GPS or phone app is a predictor of crevasse locations and that, even with a digital track to follow, navigating glaciers in whiteout conditions is frequently terrifying.

If you choose to use wands (as well as a GPS) to mark your route on the ascent, please be sure to remove them on the way down and carry them out. Routes change rapidly and wands suddenly become just litter on the mountain when routes are not maintained.

Kautz Glacier 8/8/2018

Approach to Kautz from Alta Vista taken on 8/6/19
Sustained, above average temperatures have been causing glaciers and snowfields to melt out and change rapidly everywhere on the mountain. As chossy rock melts out from the snow and ice, things become even more prone to moving. As you can see from above, crossing the Nisqually and Wilson Glaciers expose you for a long period of time to rock and ice fall. On top of that, traveling through that type of terrain is slow.

If you are looking to climb the Kautz in the next month, a route with less objective danger enters from the Comet Falls trailhead. This will minimize your exposure time to rockfall and overall time in hazardous terrain. Not to mention, the wildflowers on Van Trump should be glorious now. Take a moment to stop and enjoy the flowers on your hike up.

That being said, even with an approach via Comet Falls, the Kautz Glacier still presents lots of hazards and risks to assess and manage. A large, natural rockfall occurred last week above the rock-step where the route descends from the bivy sites to the Kautz Glacier. Falling boulders swept through the area at the bottom of the step, crossing an area that had commonly been regarded as a safe location. Scouting this area in the evening before your climb will help you decide how to move though the area faster and reduce your risk. The glacier travel above the ice pitches remains viable, but is becoming more circuitous and time-consuming. Warm temperatures may make these upper mountain crevasse crossings more dubious as time progresses.

Set yourself up for success and plan a head to move quickly through such areas to minimize your exposure time. Keep your head on a swivel and your wits about you.

Emmons Update 8/6/18

The Emmons Glacier route was continuing to be climbed through the weekend of 8/6/18. The route from Camp Schurman to the summit was in similar condition to the last blog post. A major junction at 13,300 feet (below the bergschrund) trends right and out to the Winthrop Saddle before climbing up the last 800 feet to the summit. Don't be suckered into climbing directly over the bergshrund by the old bootpack -- the bridge is thin, wide, and incredibly consequential if it fails. Walk the long way to Winthrop Saddle!

Current Track of the Emmons Route. 8/6/2018

Conditions directly above Camp Schurman and up to around 11,200' seem to be some of most hazardous on the route. Not much snow exists above the glacial ice in many locations and this leads to "punchy" conditions as you are forced to navigate through a sea of holes. Rangers observed and responded to a visitor crevasse fall between Camp Schurman and Emmons Flats as a team was working their way through this section. The route that you take in the cold morning hours may not be the way you want to return. Use caution and attempt stay on the grey glacial ice where possible.

Crevasse maze above Camp Schurman. Camp is in the lower left.

The upper mountain above, 12000 feet, is continuing to hold together. Many of the large crevasses require end-running and the passable crevasse bridges are becoming hollow. Rangers found that the majority of cracks had more than one possible crossing. Assess your options for the most solid crossing--it may not be where the major boot pack takes you.
Climbers descending from the Winthrop Saddle back to the 13300' route junction.

Climbers returning to camp as a thunderstorm approaches.
Inter Glacier:
The approach to Camp Schurman on the Inter Glacier is continuing to become more and more crevassed. As warm weather continues and bridges continue to thin, traveling as a roped team is recommended on the Inter Glacier.

Glissading is strongly discouraged due to icy and crevassed conditions.
View of the upper Inter Glacier from Mount Ruth. Climbers path proceeds up the center.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

DC Route Update 8/1

The DC route is largely the same route with many of the same hazards as in the previous post, but with a few small changes. Once to the top of the Cleaver, the route continues climbing uphill for around 300 feet to a large serac jumble (referred to as the popcorn). Where the recent route climbed beneath this feature, the current route travels up and over this formation--which reduced the objective hazard, but by no means resolves the issue and hazards. From this point,  continue climbing towards the Emmons Shoulder, traversing along an exposed fin with a very large crevasse just uphill until faced with a steep side-hill slope that will bring you back to the old route.

Be aware that with the elevated freezing levels and all the warm weather, the upper mountain has been changing very quickly. Serac movement can change the route quickly which may result in the route becomming impassable. As stated in previous blog posts, be ready for things to change rapidly and have a reserve of energy to overcome potential challenges if you happen to come across an route-finding or navigation issue while descending.

For a more detailed description on the entire route, see the previous Blog Post  

A view looking up from the top of the Cleaver

Climbing around the top of the serac feature above the Cleaver

Looking towards the Emmons Shoulder. The Ranger is about to climb onto the fin.

Climbing out onto the Emmons Shoulder with a handline

The route is not without serac hazard.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

In Depth Route Descriptions

Hey, everyone!

We wanted to take a moment and orient everyone to two documents we worked on this winter.  These two 20-30 page documents detail what we want you to know about climbing the Disappointment Cleaver and the Emmons-Winthrop Glacier.
Each route guide contains details on:
  • Route History
  • Route Use and Statistics
  • Case Studies in Rescues
  • SAR Occurrences and Statistics
  • Weather Statistics, Forecasting and Resources
  • Assessing and Managing Risk
  • How to Train
  • What to Bring
  • Search and Rescue Program
  • Explanation of Climbing Fees
  • Leave No Trace and Wilderness Protection
  • Permitting and Reservations
  • Ski Mountaineering
  • PreClimb Briefing
  • Physical Route Descriptions
  • Further Reading

Kautz Glacier and Liberty Ridge In-Depth Route Guides

Based on the success of the two route guides that were published last year on the Disappointment Cleaver and Emmons-Winthrop Glacier routes, we decided to publish two additional documents this year.  The two routes we chose were the two next most popular routes; the Kautz Glacier and Liberty Ridge.

Each route guide is 20 to 30 pages in length.  Similarly organized, each document gives overall statistics, climbing history, recommended skills, a physical description of the approach, ascent, and descent, how to get current conditions, weather data and forecasting resources, ski mountaineering considerations, risk management strategies, resource protection, search and rescue statistics, as well as many other topics of discussion relative to each route.

Written by Mount Rainier climbing rangers, the text of each document is a holistic body of knowledge from nearly 1000 ascents of the 13 current rangers.  With the rough edges of opinions and approaches rounded out, the advice contained in the guides delivers the core elements of what you need to know.

There's something in these documents that you'll find interesting no matter what your skill level.  From historical use statistics to search and rescue data, you'll likely learn something you don't know.  The document contains weather forecasting recommendations and data, recommended additional reading, and lessons learned from search and rescue incidents.

Here are the direct links to each document on Mount Rainier's official webpage:
Enjoy the documents and have a great ascent!