Friday, June 24, 2022

A Big Warm Up On The Way and Continued Avalanche Activity

 As the first big warm up of the season is approaching we have still been observing very large avalanches being triggered naturally. The most recent was observed on the Cowlitz Glacier below Anvil Rock (~9,500'). 

A photo of an avalanche taken 6/24/2022

A map of the area of the avalanche

This was a wet slab avalanche. This type of avalanche often occurs during prolonged warming events. There may be little warning of increasing avalanche hazard other than warm temperatures and slushy snow. That said, snowballs or pinwheels rolling down the snow surface and/or smaller avalanches occurring is a sure sign of increasing avalanche danger. One other possible indicator is several successive nights without a sold freeze on the snowpack.

Usually travel conditions are poor when the danger of wet slab avalanches is highest so climbing at night, sticking to a time plan and turning you climb around before the day 'get's away from you' is advised, even more so than normal.


Thursday, June 23, 2022

Kautz Conditions 6/22

Kautz Conditions appear to be inline with other routes on the south aspects of Mount Rainier- for the most part, routes such as the Kautz, Fuhrer Finger & Wilson Headwall all appear to be well filled in. Snow still blankets most of the steeper pitches, such as the "ice tongue" and appears planar and well connected. The rock step at Camp Hazard has a minimal drop to access the base of the ice tongue of the Kautz and should be relatively easy to navigate in both directions of travel. The Turtle snowfield is well filled in and is beginning to corn by mid morning, although climbers may encounter post-holing if they are ascending later in the day. 

The lower crossing of the Nisqually is also well filled in and minimal crevasses are visible. This being said, temperatures are forecasted to remain warm and sunny. Use caution when navigating a crossing as crevasse bridges may soften, leading for higher potential for a crevasse fall. 

Lots of older, but surprisingly large wet-loose avalanche debris exists from prior shed cycles and activity should act as reminders for climbers and skiers alike to heed warning about the possibility for avalanches. We are just cresting into our first real warmup of the season. We have received lots of snow this spring- that mixed with more warm and sunny weather presents the potential for more Wet snow related avalanches in the upcoming weeks.

 
A view of the mountain from the Lower Nisqually
crossing below Glacier Vista.
A view of the Kautz Glacier from the rock step at Camp Hazard

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Emmons-Winthrop Route 6/19

Ski tracks down the Emmons 6/20

On Friday the 17th, 2-4 inches of snow fell above 7400 feet that did not consolidate well to the underlying surface. Saturday the 18th, winds picked up and the sun came out in the afternoon and the small amount of snow seemed to have blown away or consolidated. Sunday and Monday was the start of our first real high pressure cycle with sunny skies and moderate winds. Over the weekend multiple parties had success in reaching the summit, most of which involved ski descents.

A route to the summit on the Emmons

The Emmons is filled in well for this time of year and the route is very direct. Minimal avalanche danger was observed, although this may change with the increasing freezing levels. Old wind slabs were present, but shallow and non-reactive. There was a mixture of firm sections, soft wind blown snow about a foot deep, and punchy wind drifted snow. Sagging snow bridges exist from 11000' to 13000' feet, something to keep an eye on as the temperatures increase.

Variable snow conditions on the Corridor

Wind blown snow surface with a distant view of the Prow

The approach to Camp Schurman has some challenges as well. Ascending the Inter Glacier, parties that did not have floatation (skis/snowshoes), postholed more than expected. Patchy snow still exists on the trail after about 1.5 miles. The creek crossing at Glacier basin may also be flowing higher than usual with the higher temperatures and increased snow melt. Be aware of rising water levels as temperatures rise throughout the weekend.

View of Russel Cliffs from just below the bergschrund

We might be turning the corner on winter and finally getting a glimpse of summer. As the freezing levels continue to remain high, avalanche hazard still remains. Evidence of past large avalanches are reminders on both the Emmons and the Winthrop. Many wet loose avalanches were spotted on the way up to and around Camp Schurman. The photo below shows wet loose avalanches off the south side of the Prow.







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Thursday, June 16, 2022

Ingraham Direct / DC Conditions and Avalanche Uncertainty

Warmer, drier and more seasonable conditions are forecast to return to the mountain next week, but climbers should manage expectations and not get too excited for spring climbing conditions just yet. The mountain has been entrenched in a winter like pattern with heavy snowfall, cold temperatures, and strong winds for weeks.

Weather hazards may be decreasing, but avalanche danger remains elevated. This is not your typical June. Until consistent warm temperatures, high freezing levels, and lack of storms stabilize the snowpack, uncertain avalanche conditions remain.

Multiple recent avalanches can be observed from the Muir Snowfield

Guide services reported a very large, or D3, sized avalanche on the Ingraham Direct route last week. Rangers and guides have also observed persistent weak layers and wind slabs in the Ingraham Direct/Disappointment Cleaver area snowpack. Rangers have also observed very large avalanches on the Emmons Winthrop route. Additionally, avalanches triggered by cornice collapse were also visible from the Muir Snowfield on Tuesday.

It all adds up to the fact that there is lots of unstable snow on Mount Rainier and there will be until a change in the weather actually occurs. While humans may not trigger weak layers deep in the snowpack; serac fall events, such as those that occur frequently on the Nisqually Ice Fall, can trigger very large avalanches at any time.

A serac collapse on the Nisqually Ice Fall

Climbers should be prepared to make their own snowpack evaluation before traveling into avalanche terrain. There’s no avalanche forecast center providing assessments for the upper mountain and just because another rope team ascends doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “safe” to climb. Consider using the “Entrenchment” strategic mindset - not an ideal place to be operating, but a safe place, and with discipline and time will eventually allow for climbing and skiing into the future. 

Be prepared for winter-like travel conditions and carry avalanche rescue gear and know how to use it. Keep in mind there is no established route to the summit at this time. Neither the Emmons-Winthrop nor Disappointment Cleaver have an established boot pack, so prepare for a more wilderness-like experience than in a typical Mount Rainier climbing season.  Stop by one of our ranger stations in the park for more information!  

Monday, June 13, 2022

Avalanche Activity on the Emmons-Winthrop Route

Recent snow and wind has caused a significant avalanche cycle on the Emmons-Winthrop Route. This activity confirms that the upper mountain is retaining its winter character. Large crowns are visible from miles away, and the resultant slides are somewhere in the D3 size range. One slide put debris well below the elevation of Camp Schurman on the Winthrop Glacier. 

Photo taken from Camp Schurman on 6/11. Avalanche crowns are highlighted in red. 

Trying to forecast for snow stability in terrain as big and remote as the upper mountain of Mount Rainier is extremely difficult - due to hard-to-measure variables and loads of uncertainty. Traditionally climbers wait until warm spring temperatures stabilize the snow to avoid exposure to avalanches. Spring has yet to happen on Mount Rainier and the uncertainty of the winter snowpack remains. 

Photo taken 6/13 from Camp Schurman. Avalanche Crowns highlighted in red. 

Those attempting to climb Rainier in the near future will need to come prepared to do their own snow stability assessments and be open to the idea of turning around if conditions aren't right. Those who are looking for a more traditional summer ascent of the mountain will have to continue to wait for warmer temperatures. When spring does finally arrive and the snow stabilizes, we could have some amazing conditions for climbing and skiing Mount Rainier.

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

Upper Mountain Skiing and Snowboarding

The Upper Ingraham and Emmons Glaciers. NPS Photo

While it's not in the forecast yet, there will be an end to the persistent series of 'wet season-like' storms that have been pasting the mountain with snow. When the weather does stabilize we expect to see an influx of skiers looking to take advantage of what could be very good conditions. Please keep the following things in mind, though, before rushing to the mountain.

1) Give the snowpack time to stabilize

This has been an unusually wet Spring. In fact, May was the wettest it has been since 1948 and June is starting in much the same vein. That means the upper mountain has not had time for the winter snowpack to settle. Many of the climbing rangers think that the upper elevations look more like April than June. 

With the sun nearing the solstice that means when the switch to summer-like temps does come it will have a more rapid and pronounced effect than it would in April. The mid elevations have gone through a few very large avalanche cycles but above 10,000' this has not happened yet. Expect a period of highly unstable snow once the storms stop and the weather heats up. Give the snowpack some time to adjust to summer.

2) Just because you're on skis it doesn't make you safer.

It has become part of skiing culture that it is 'safer' to be on a glacier with skis/snowboard due to the increased surface area. While this may be true for a flat glacier with soft snow bridges it is not true for the upper mountain on Mt. Rainier. The surface near the summit of Rainier is typically very firm with lots of surface roughness and ice. The majority of the skiing/snowboarding accidents and fatalities are the result of falls while skiing. Poor surface conditions and a lack of skiing/snowboarding skill are often contributory factors to skiing accidents.

When talking to aspirational skiers/snowboarders at the high camps rangers are often surprised at the lack of experience people have before attempting a summit ski or snowboard descent. If you are not an expert level skier or snowboarder then it is considerably more dangerous for you to descend on skis/snowboard than on foot. Expect firm snow or ice about 12,000' where a fall while skiing can easily result in an out-of-control slide and a life threatening situation.

3) Climbing with ski/snowboard gear takes more effort and is slower.

The added weight and loss of efficiency when booting up Mt Rainier with skis/snowboard on your pack and boots on your feet should not be overlooked. AT boots are cumbersome to climb in and soft snowboard boots do not inspire confidence when crampon-ing. This should be factored in to your time plan and accounted for when evaluating conditions before beginning a descent on tired legs. Wind is another factor that will tire out a skier/snowboarder (when the skis/board is attached to the pack) faster than a traditional mountaineer.

4) Timing is everything.

Poor surface conditions can make a basic slope extremely dangerous and great conditions can make a steep run seem easy. Getting the timing right for a descent is one of the most important things a ski/snowboard team can do to maximize their margin of safety. Learning the patterns of when the sun, temperatures and wind all combine to make the surface good for a descent must be learned through experience. Relying on fixed time windows such as 'you always start a descent at XX:XX time' is a tell-tale sign of inexperience. The daily fluctuations in cloud cover, wind and temperature requires that a ski mountaineer be able to read the day and react accordingly.

Many would-be skiers/snowboarders will leave for their summit bid much later than the traditional mountaineers. This may be warranted when trying to give the snow time to soften during the day. But many teams underestimate the amount of time it will take them to reach the summit and thus put themselves in more danger by ascending during the hottest time of day. It's definitely preferable to wait for snow to soften from the top vs climbing through unstable snow and crevasse bridges. 

A ski/snowboard descent of Mt Rainier can be a wonderful and exhilarating experience. It can also be terrifying and extremely dangerous. It should never be taken lightly and for mountaineers with very little climbing and skiing/snowboarding experience it may not be at all appropriate in many conditions. 

Friday, June 03, 2022

Emmons-Winthrop 6/1

Independent parties, guided groups and climbing rangers all made successful summit climbs via the Emmons-Winthrop route on the 1st of June, 2022. A route from Camp Schurman following the Corridor was established with hard work and lots of trail breaking thru wind blown snow. This route ascends The Corridor and continues above it up to around 13,000' before trending right thru the bergschrund and continuing to contour to the crater rim. 

The Emmons glacier is coated in a thick blanket of snow for this time of year, and the need to end-run crevasses is minimal. Many may remember the cold and snowy Junes of a decade or more ago.  This season is very similar. 

There are multiple ways of climbing the Emmons currently and the main factor at play in the establishment of the current route is snow stability and avalanche danger. The upper mountain is continuing to receive snow and its being moved around by strong winds. When climbing in the coming weeks keep your winter avalanche assessment hat on and think twice before launching into steep, exposed or unsupported slopes with signs of a recent snow load.

A route to the summit.


View from Camp Schurman

Travel up to Camp Schurman has not been without challenges as well. The trail from White River to Glacier Basin is patchy with snow for the first 1.5 miles.  Recent snow and warming have made for numerous loose wet avalanches above glacier basin and this avalanche cycle has largely run its course in the 5-8000 ft range.. The snow pack is still in a state of settlement and parties without skis or snowshoes for flotation were finding themselves endlessly post-holing up the Inter Glacier. This will hopefully improve in the coming days, but we are a long way from a consolidated summer snowpack.

Wet Loose Avalanche activity above Glacier Basin.