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A New Route Up Rainier's West Side

A New Route Up Rainier’s West Side

(August 26-29, 1938)

Don M. Woods

CREDIT for the completion of one of the few remaining new routes on Mt. Rainier is due to Ome Daiber, of the Seattle Mountaineers, who showed it to me on the map as well as on an aerial photograph. He had examined the ridge between Ptarmigan Ridge and Sunset Amphitheatre while on three different flights over Rainier, and was sure the route would work out despite two very steep snow or ice slopes to be negotiated.

During the past four years four difficult new routes had been made on the N. and W. slopes of Rainier. In 1934 Hans Fuhrer and Alfred Roovers ascended Puyallup Cleaver to its head, continuing to the summit by following Tahoma Glacier through the gap from which this glacier descends. In 1935 Ome Daiber, Arnold Campbell and Will H. Borrow, Jr., all of Seattle, completed the very difficult ascent of Liberty Ridge on the N. side.1 This same year Wolf Bauer and Jack Hossack made the ascent of Ptarmigan Ridge, just W. of Liberty Ridge, a route involving difficult ice climbing.2 A year later two Park rangers, Wendell Trosper and Fred Thiem, made a variant of the Fuhrer-Roovers route by climbing the upper Puyallup Glacier above the head of Puyallup Cleaver, going around St. Andrews Rock, climbing the rock face of Sunset Amphitheatre and the steep cliffs of hanging ice above, thence to the summit.3 Only two new routes remained on Rainier, Curtis Ridge on the direct N. (which had been tried without success several times by Daiber and his companions), and the ridge which he now suggested to me, and for which we suggested the name “Sunset Ridge,” because it is found directly W. of Sunset Amphitheatre, extending down the W. face of Rainier to Sunset Park. [Route shown on photo facing p. 367.]

When I arrived in Seattle from the Mazama outing in the Chelan country of central Washington, I was disappointed to find that it was impossible for Daiber to go with us. He had found two splendid companions for me, Arnold Campbell, who had accompanied him on the climb of Liberty Ridge in 1935, and Lyman Boyer of the Seattle Mountaineers. All three of us were strangers to each other and had never climbed together, yet three kindred spirits worked harmoniously together on the adventure which followed.

After a late start from Seattle, we lost three hours at Longmire and Paradise because we could get no Park official to check our equipment. Daiber had received special permission from Park Superintendent Tomlinson for our climb, and Bill Butler, chief ranger at Paradise, finally gave us an O. K., although our ascent was to be entirely out of his district. Under no condition were we to put a high camp on the W. side if the cloud-cap that had been present for several days remained on the following day. It was about 9 p.m. when we left the new W. side highway at its terminus at N. Puyallup River. My wife and six-year-old son took the car back to a camp on Tahoma Creek and were to meet us two days later at Paradise.

In just over an hour we were in Klapatche Park. We camped at the edge of a tiny lake in trees, with a fire but no sleeping bags, having left them below as we intended to traverse our peak. Just before dawn we looked at our objective, and to our delight the cloud-cap was gone. A gorgeous sunrise greeted us.

After a hot breakfast we continued along the trail through St. Andrews Park and along Puyallup Cleaver to about 7500 ft., where we put on our rope and bird-cage crampons. We continued up and across Puyallup Glacier, skirting the upper end of Colonnades Ridge, thence ascending the steep ice slope leading through the ice- fall of S. Mowich Glacier. We did not cut steps, as the long points of our crampons, with the point of the iceaxe, gave sufficient security for each of us.

About halfway through this icefall a calamity occurred, Boyer breaking his right crampon just under the ball of the foot, leaving the four toe-points almost completely severed. The leverage of the extra long points (2.5 in.) may have been the cause. A piece of wire from a junk kit was used to recondition the crampon, but it was a grave question in our minds whether the two very steep upper ice slopes would yield to this makeshift job.

Continuing up the icefall and to the left as we reached a basin in the glacier above, we stopped for a late lunch on the ridge between the Edmunds and S. Mowich Glaciers. The latter glacier ends in a cirque at 10,000 ft., from whence a steep snowfinger led upward for perhaps 1500 ft. past two prominent gendarmes on our ridge. A wide bergschrund intervened, but was crossed with no particular difficulty. We exercised care lest the upper lip fall through with us, or loose rock be brought down from above the ice.

At 5.30 we had reached an elevation of 11,000 ft., with another 500 ft. of the steep snow-finger above us. We judged the slope to be 50°. As there was a stream of water running on the opposite side of the snow-finger, and a fair campsite had been reached at the edge of the snow, we decided to bivouac. We cut out and levelled off a snow platform about 5 ft. square, just at the base of the rocky ridge. The icy snow was floored with loose, flat rocks, then dirt and fine rock, several thicknesses of newspaper adding to the insulation. The tent was then pitched, using ropes, pitons, and rocks. We had gathered two small pans of water from the stream, but as the contents of one had been consumed, the fierce wind which had begun to lash the mountain side caught the empty light pan and carried it many feet into the air, and of course beyond recovery.

More insulation was provided for our backs with wrapping paper, our boots came off and feet were put into rucksacks. All our extra clothing was put on for the night’s vigil. Once a large candle was lighted which gave a fair amount of heat. Our plan was to attempt to sleep for a few hours before it became too cold, then to arouse ourselves and light the primus stove for warmth as well as to prepare hot soup. This worked well except that it was next to impossible to sleep sitting up, with our backs resting on ice, and a howling blast of wind tearing down upon us. Even so, the night we experienced was probably mild compared to many nights at this elevation on the mountain.

By six we were away, continuing up the snow-finger to a col in the ridge at a prominent castle-like gendarme, overlooking Sunset Amphitheatre. We were just opposite St. Andrews Rock, Columbia Crest and Peak Success plainly visible, but not Liberty Cap, our immediate objective. The next several hundred feet of rocky ridge presented no climbing difficulties, and we were then faced with a slight drop and a saddle in the ridge. Two alternatives presented themselves, either to cross below the saddle on the loose, partly iced face, or continue along the extremely rotten, knife-edge ridge, either route being far from reassuring.

At this point a debate arose as to the feasibility of continuing. It was already late morning, and examination of the aerial photograph taken early in the year with much more snow and ice than at present did not reveal our location easily. One thought we were much lower on the ridge, but the other two proved our position by calling attention to the hanging ice-cliffs of Ptarmigan Ridge, directly opposite our present position on the left. We then knew that we could not be much over 2000 ft. below Liberty Cap, so we voted to continue.

The next hour was the nastiest bit of climbing of the entire route. The first two climbers were belayed one at a time on a descent of 8 ft., then across 30 ft. of rotten, disintegrated lava. They worked around a huge boulder before arriving at a safe place. I descended last with a rappel from a sling of reserve rope placed around a rock at the top of the rotten ridge. The dust in our faces as we were making this crossing was most disagreeable, but we now felt we must go on, none of us caring to climb up the pitch we had just descended. After a little more repair to the broken crampon we were ready to continue.

Our next problem was a steep névé-ice slope rising for about 1000 ft. at an estimated angle of 60°. It continued downward, far below us, ending in a rock face above the N. Mowich Glacier. Again practically no steps were cut as the crampons and axe-point worked remarkably well. Needless to say, we were saved many hours of labor on these three steep snow and ice slopes by not feeling the need for steps. We felt that our climb was made possible by the extremely dry condition of the mountain, near the end of the driest season I have witnessed in six visits to Rainier during a period of thirteen years. Earlier in the year glare ice might be found on this highest ice-slope, which would add many hours to the climb.

We reached the top of our last steep slope in just over an hour, and were rewarded by seeing Liberty Cap directly above us. The remaining 1000 ft. of snow-covered ridge was easily negotiated. It was on this stretch that the four toe-points of Boyer’s crampon broke off completely and beyond repair.

This snow leading to Liberty Cap was terribly sun-cupped, as was the snow leading from the Cap to Columbia Crest, many of the cups being 5 ft. deep. For this reason three hours were required from the Cap to the Crest, and we were tired when we signed the register at 4 p.m. We hurried across the crater and down the upper slopes of Nisqually Glacier, immense crevasses being crossed on slender but stable ice bridges, and the sun-cups slowing our progress considerably. At this point we received welcoming signal flashes from tourists at Paradise. At 13,000 ft. we crossed the ridge to the Kautz Glacier. Threading our way through sun-cups and many crevasses, we were only halfway down the steep Kautz ice-chutes when darkness overtook us.

From a secure spot above an ice-hummock, Campbell and Boyer were belayed to another ice-hummock 100 ft. below. I then rappelled 50 ft. on the doubled climbing rope from an ice-piton as anchor. From here Campbell was lowered to within a few dozen feet of the lower end of the ice-chute, and slid this remaining distance. Boyer was lowered another 100 ft., and using ice-hummocks as anchors for the doubled rope, three more rappels were necessary before I reached his position. From here we easily descended to the snow below the chute, this time-consuming process having taken three hours of our fast fleeing time.

Now in total darkness, Boyer, who had ascended and descended the Kautz route a month previously, led us to the ice-cliff requiring a climb of 20 ft. and a traverse of a 100 ft. or more before we were on the rock of Wapowety Cleaver, just above Camp Hazard. This ice-work after dark was quite hazardous and Boyer did a marvelous job of selecting his way. I had a head-lamp flashlight which was useful, as Boyer’s carbide lamp kept blowing out in the blast of wind and was practically useless.

On this day we had come from 11,000 ft. on the W. side, over the summit and down to 11,000 ft. on the N. side. We had seen fourteen of the twenty-seven glaciers on the mountain (only the glaciers on the E. not being visible), and had travelled on five during the trip.

About midnight Sunday we decided to stop just below Camp Hazard, it being impossible to reach Paradise that night. We were tired and cold, too much so to really set up our tent or even hunt a suitable spot. We just flopped on some rocks and threw the canvasover us, all three were sitting without sleep until dawn. We ate cold food, as we were in no position convenient for lighting the primus stove. It was a most miserable night.

We left at six and continued down the cinder slopes. The snow slope above the Wilson Glacier was cupped and icy, the Wilson Glacier bare and crevassed although both had offered splendid glissading a month previously. Careful belaying was necessary on the Wilson Glacier; in fact, one slip of 40 ft. was held by the man belaying. On all dangerous pitches we kept a constant belay during our climb, essential because of the steepness of much of our climbing and the absence of ice steps.

The snow-finger leading to the Nisqually Glacier which provided such excellent glissading a month before had melted out completely, leaving a loose, rocky gully, with ice ridges extending through it which hindered our progress. From above we had picked out an easy walk across the Nisqually, but we met two young climbers who sent us into a labyrinth that didn’t improve our feeling of exhaustion at all. Finally we reached the moraine and the trail.

At noon Monday, three tired, sleepy, happy climbers walked into Paradise Valley, only twenty-four hours overdue.

1 A .A.J., ii, 475, also Mountaineer Annual, 1935.

2 Mountaineer Annual, 1935.

3 Mountaineer Annual, 1937.