Monday, June 04, 2018

Considerations for Skiers

A skier descends the Kautz Glacier.

The Rangers have observed a marked increase in skier traffic on the upper mountain in recent years. This has coincided with a significant increase in accidents involving skiing. We are compiling data in order find common errors that skiers make that get them in trouble. We hope to use these cautionary tales to prevent future accidents.
One constant observation that the rangers have made is that the basic approach to risk management is often skewed in skiing parties. It is often assumed that since skis spread one's weight out over a large surface area then they are a safer method of travel on glaciers. This may be true for flat valley glaciers but on the steep terrain near the summit the opposite is often true. The extra weight and awkwardness of skis makes the endeavor more challenging and requires more attention paid to risk management.
Another area of concern for rangers is the willingness of parties to climb one of the standard routes to access a steeper, more remote descent objective. This may be physically less challenging but it robs the skier of the ability to assess conditions on the ski objective and to identify hazards on the ascent. Dropping in to an unknown, unseen route automatically increases the risk of the endeavor substantially.
Individuals considering a ski attempt on Mount Rainier should possess significant previous experience skiing on glaciers and at altitude. While no other Cascade volcano possesses the same degree of challenge for the ski mountaineer, it is imperative to have experience skiing on other peaks like Mount Baker and Mount Adams before coming to Mount Rainier.
Here are some considerations if you are planning a ski trip on Mount Rainier.
Team Selection
This is the most important factor to consider when planning a trip to Mount Rainier. The vast majority of terrain on Mount Rainier can be classified as “no fall” territory. Although ski falls may be common and insignificant in a ski resort, all falls on the upper mountain are serious. Simply losing an edge can easily cascade into an unstoppable slide into an open crevasse. Reverting to side-slipping or falling-leaf technique, rather than linked turns, can help maintain control of your ski descent.
If anyone in your party has any doubt of their ability to safely ski the route, you must be willing to communicate that and revert to appropriate roped glacier travel techniques.
Successfully completing a ski descent of Mount Rainier requires individuals and teams who are competent in a broad spectrum of mountain skills. Mountaineering, glacier travel, rope techniques, navigation, and expert-level downhill skiing skills with a heavy backpack are the bare minimum.
Route Selection
There is no easy way to ski from the summit of Mount Rainier. All routes feature complex glacier travel, steep skiing, and long sections of no-fall terrain. Commonly attempted routes include: Emmons-Winthrop, Fuhrer Finger, Kautz Glacier, Success Couloir, and Ingraham Direct.
There are many excellent ski descents on the mountain that minimize exposure to crevasses, ice and rock fall, and high altitude. Descents of the Muir Snowfield, Van Trump Snowfields, The Turtle, and Inter Glacier all serve as a nice introduction to the challenges of skiing on Mount Rainier.
One Day vs. Overnight Trips
An increasing number of teams opt for single day attempts; these require exceptional fitness levels. We see many teams that begin their attempt together but slowly get spread out across the mountain. This is unacceptable. It is crucial that team members remain within verbal and visual communication at all times. If one party member needs to stop or descend, the group should do the same. Do not leave anyone alone on the mountain. Consider a multi-day attempt so that you can begin your summit attempt rested and focused for the strenuous day ahead. Overnight trips also present better opportunities to time your descent for optimal conditions.

No matter which strategy your party chooses you must register for your climb and pay the climbing fee. More information on that process can be found here.
Weather & Avalanche Conditions
Since professional avalanche forecasts are not issued during the summer months, snow stability must be assessed by the team before entering avalanche terrain (most of the upper mountain). Late season storms often deposit feet of snow and produce slab avalanches. Even small amounts of snow spread out on the volcano can rapidly drift into wind slabs.
When signs of instability are present, the best course of action is to descend immediately from your current location rather than trying to outsmart the avalanche problem. It only takes a small amount of moving snow to knock you off your feet and push you into places that have serious consequences.
Snow Surface Conditions
This is probably the hardest variable to predict when planning a ski descent of Rainier. Snow conditions vary widely across aspect and elevation. The upper mountain rarely features smooth snow surfaces that could be defined as “good” skiing – it is commonly “survival skiing” up high. The surface above high camps is frequently a mix of breakable wind crust, very firm wind packed snow, ice chunks, sastrugi, and refrozen snow. Expect to ski “bad snow” for some or all of every descent.

Furthermore, it is rare that a ski descent does not require some down climbing. In many cases the decision to transion to crampons and ice axe for a short down climb can be a life-saving event. You must expect that you will need to take off your skis, rope up and climb down intermittently.
Just because you’ve read reports of good ski conditions on south side routes, don’t expect the same on other aspects of the mountain. The east and north sides of the mountain are commonly weeks behind in the melt-freeze cycle transition into corn snow. This means that routes like the Emmons and Fuhrer Finger have vastly different conditions on the same day. Don’t be afraid to walk downhill rather than skiing in difficult conditions.
 Glacier Conditions
As the season progresses, all potential ski descents become more challenging as crevasses open and more ice is exposed. The trend in recent years has been to attempt ski descents earlier in the season to help mitigate these hazards, though this brings increased risk of avalanches, challenging navigation, and more hidden crevasses. Regardless of when a descent is attempted, always ensure that you can see to the bottom of the slope you are on. Convex rolls often hide crevasses on their downhill side.
All parties on foot should be roped up to help protect against glacier hazards. This means transitioning from skiing to booting (or skiing to booting) should be done after roping up and spreading out the team. The greatly reduced surface area of boots compared to skis greatly increases the likelihood of crevasse falls.
Technical & Rescue Considerations
All parties must be competent in crevasse rescue. Every member should wear a climbing harness at all times in the event of a crevasse fall. Carrying two ropes affords a greater safety margin in the event that the person carrying the only rope falls into a crevasse. Many crevasses are deeper than 100 feet, so carrying two ropes per team that are each longer than 40 meters is recommended. Each party member should have enough supplies to construct a rescue anchor, rappel into and ascend out of a crevasse, and execute a haul system. All other mountaineering equipment should also be carried, including crampons, ice axe, helmet, navigation, and survival gear.
A ski descent of Rainier can be one of the most rewarding experiences for a competent party but it can quickly turn disastrous for the unskilled or unprepared. The fact that descending on skis is so much faster than on foot allows skiers to get off route and into problematic terrain all that more quickly. Proper planning and a high degree of caution is a prerequisite for a successful ski descent of the mountain.