American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

First Ascent of the Nisqually Icefall

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  • Publication Year: 1949

First Ascent of the Nisqually Icefall

Dee Molenaar

AT NOON on 15 July 1948, Bob Craig and I stood on a small rockpile at 13,000 feet on Mount Rainier. We had spent the previous ten hours in the most intensive and exhausting ice work either of us had ever undertaken. Below, our crampon tracks could be seen emerging from the jumbled breakup of the Nisqually Glacier Icefall. Above, the summit snow fields rolled gently to the crater rim and the 14,408-foot summit. Thus was pioneered a new route to the summit dome from the peak’s heavily glaciered southwest flank.1

Many climbers, gazing at the mountain’s most steeply cascading glacier, have wondered whether it would be possible to climb this untrodden portion of the Nisqually Glacier. It was not until this summer that Bob and I, on a “postman’s holiday” from our duties as Temporary Rangers in the National Park, found the time and opportunity to gain intimate acquaintance with this tremendous icefall. Although the climb occurred without mishap, our survey of the glacier at this point resulted in strong recommendation against its use as a future climbing route to the summit.

Previous reconnaissance trips along the snow fields bordering the lower Nisqually Glacier had given us some idea of the conditions of the icefall. We had observed that most of the avalanches occurred in a steep chute between the eastern (right) edge of the icefall and the rocks of the Nisqually Cleaver, the steep rock ridge separating the icefall from the ice cliff of the glacier. Also, a wide debris track was lying at the basal, central portion of the icefall. This slope, at an angle of about 40 degrees, extended into the breakups and séracs above and was of an over-all length of about 500 feet. Since this slope appeared to be the only reasonably expeditious way by which the upper icefall could be reached from the “flat” glacier below, we planned our strategy with the initial attack to begin here. High above, the greater breakups, although an apparent chaos of ice blocks and irregular crevasses, gave encouragement only by virtue of our belief that many of the crevasses would be bridged and filled with fallen debris. We were of the opinion that the real route-finding problem might present itself above the icefall proper, where crevasse lips and edges would be steep, clean-cut and unbridged, running possibly the entire width of the glacier. With these thoughts in mind, Bob and I climbed to 10,000-foot Camp Muir in the evening of July 14th, prepared to catch a few winks before an early morning sally onto the ice slopes above.

By the time dawn had lightened the sky the next morning, we were at the lower end of the long debris slopes, now solidly frozen in the frigid morning air. Our route from high camp had traversed the heavily crevassed Nisqually cirque, and we had needed flashlights to locate the path between the larger holes. Once on the slope, we found that it steepened to such a degree that another man on our 120-foot nylon rope would have presented a problem: our leads from each suitable belay point required the full rope length. With feelings of genuine relief, we emerged into a niche at the upper end of this slope. The last 50 feet were climbed only by the use of laboriously cut steps.

The sun was hitting the eastern edges of the ice blocks high above as we resumed the ascent after a few minutes’ rest to remove a couple of layers of clothing; the steep climbing had warmed us, despite the chill of the morning. Above us now rose a series of leaning séracs and fallen blocks of all sizes and shapes, interspersed by crevasses of invisible depth. Since an ice ridge running to the right suggested a possible route, Bob took the lead and, chopping several steps along an ice slab, scrambled to the ridge top and belayed me to him. With a few more feet of rope, he advanced for further study of the ridge. Bob’s first words told me that our route would have to follow the ridge to a drop-off ahead. Here Bob established himself firmly behind an ice block, while I passed carefully and proceeded down to the drop-off. A broken-edged crevasse cut us off from the mass of fallen ice blocks on the opposite side. However, a small sérac leaned slightly toward our ridge, although about eight feet down and out from the nearest jumping position. It was the only way across; so, with a little slack in the rope, I jumped across to the sérac, down which I scrambled to more stable ice. From here I worked between and over several small ice blocks until another crevasse brought me to a halt. Here I brought Bob up with a hip belay from behind an ice hummock.

The next problem came in the form of a narrow, jumble-topped, downward-sloping ice bridge covered by a layer of new snow. Midway, the bridge thinned to a foot in thickness. Far below, the blue, icy depths might have had artistic appeal under other circumstances. After glancing appreciatively at Bob’s firm belay behind me, I let my weight slowly down and straddled the bridge cautiously before gaining a position for a long leap-step to the opposite edge. It held, and I moved quickly along a steeply banked ledge to a safe position from which to belay Bob over. We were now standing “with our backs to the wall” on one side and with a downward-sloping crevasse lip on the other side. Farther along, however, a narrow chute ran upward and around a higher corner of ice. Here Bob took the lead. After cutting several down-pressure handholds and footsteps, he used his rangy 6 feet 3 inches to good advantage in negotiating the first nearly vertical pitch of the chute. A few minutes later we had both climbed into a level saddle above.

We surveyed the situation. A narrow shelf on the opposite side of a steep ice slope appeared to be the next roosting point. Beyond, our vision was blocked by a mass of delicate icicles glistening against the sunlight. With Bob belaying from a pocket in the ice, I began the crampon traverse across this 55-degree slope. Occasional 35- degree “platforms” offered resting points until the opposite side was reached. Here I took a look over. I was now standing on the edge of the deeply scoured, steeply sloping ice chute which we had determined to avoid at all costs. It was about 200 feet across and inclined from an ice cliff high above to a sweeping bend far below. Above the opposite side could be seen the dark-banded, roughly projecting rocks of the Nisqually Cleaver. Along the upper left edge of the chute, a narrow crevasse gave some semblance of a ledge route which could be used to work to the left of the ice cliff above. After a contemplative pause I anchored myself and took in the rope. Bob joined me with a questioning grin on his face.

We were now at an elevation of about 11,500 feet and above the broken, jumbled mass of the icefall proper. It had taken us about five hours to reach this point, 1500 feet above the base of the icefall. But we were still in the “cataracts” and not sure of finding a through route. Until now we had been keeping to the center of the glacier, halfway between the two rock cleavers. Now we were confronted with the possibility that we should have to work out of the icefall by crossing the big chute with the aid of piton belays. We had not planned on being “forced” into this direction and toward the downward-sloping, crumbling rocks of the Nisqually Cleaver. Now we were wondering.

With hopes that a way might be found above, Bob took the lead along the crevasse ledge. This shelf proved to be narrower than when it was first studied, with a tendency to slope downward into the chute. At one point an ice “chockstone” blocked progress until more steps were cut. I could see Bob’s back disappearing behind this block, then the rope sliding over, first taut, then slack; then I could hear the mutterings of a man cutting steps from an awkward position. It was only after the full 100 feet of rope separating us had been paid out that Bob’s murmurs suddenly changed to an exultant cry: “Ah … a highway ahead!” After I had climbed along the ledge and given Bob more rope, he whooped that a broad snow bridge crossing a higher crevasse again opened the route in the direction of higher ice. I joined Bob on a broad saddle. We took off our packs and sat down to rest.

It was now 8.30 A.M., and the sun was shining brightly from a cloudless sky. The exertions of the morning had given us a thirst which was soon satisfied with a can of orange juice. I took out our 20-power telescope and, balancing it on the head of my axe, focused it on the telescope platform at the Paradise Inn, three miles away in a direct line. A small cluster of moving objects on the platform told us that people were following our progress through the 33- power telescope below. To accentuate our elation at finding a route through the icefall, we formed a chorus line and danced a jig—until we got out of time and began ripping into each other’s trousers with crampon points.

Suddenly a dull crack sounded in the ice blocks below, followed by a sliding crash of ice against ice, then by a roar as cascading blocks slithered downward in the ice chute. The sun’s rays were already beginning to melt the smaller ties holding together massive ice blocks—mute argument for an early start when one is attempting an ascent through a maze of frozen séracs.

A small but revitalizing breakfast of raisins and a sandwich each prepared us for further advance. Our route from here traversed a gentle slope to the “highway” bridge, then steeply upward to a knife-edged crevasse lip. Bob straddled the ridge à cheval with an ice-axe belay, while I inched along carefully for a rope length. Since a transverse crevasse immediately preceded another higher knife-edge continuation of our ridge, Bob took another belay position here while I cut steps upward and onto a broader surface. From this point we gained elevation rapidly and were soon relaxed to the extent of taking a few Kodachromes of the rapidly changing scenery of open névé slopes and solitary séracs poised near by. At 12,500 feet we worked to the left side of the glacier and through another jumble of ice blocks below the bergschrund which bordered the rocks of Wapowety Cleaver. Another knife-edge ridge ottered the last step-chopping problem before we arrived, weary and extremely dry-mouthed, on the rocks of the Cleaver just below the 13,000-foot saddle over which the Kautz route climbs. The Nisqually Icefall had been climbed.

It was now noon. The hard work of the morning had somewhat dimmed our ambitions to go higher, since we were now on the regular summit route. But a few raisins mixed with snow lent us the added doggedness to push on slowly to the crater rim and summit register box, which we gained at 2.00 P.M. A hot sun shone brightly as we lay stretched in the crater for an hour before proceeding downward.

Our descent was made via the Fuhrer Finger, one of the seldom climbed couloirs on the mountain. We were thus one of the few parties to enjoy one of the finest glissades on Rainier. In ten minutes we lost 2000 feet of elevation and were appreciative of this accelerated finale to an extremely long day. We arrived at the Paradise Ranger Station at 7.00 P.M., quite fatigued but completely satisfied with the finest of ice adventures.

[The author gives additional information on the Nisqually route in a letter: “Today, September 12th, 1948, I took my customary morning look at The Mountain and the icefall. To my amazement, a dazzling area of white, newly exposed ice glared back at me from the right of the icefall. Some time within the past 24 hours (the mountain was covered by clouds yesterday afternoon), a large avalanche had taken a clean path for about 1500 feet to 2000 feet, beginning at the ice cliff at the head of the chute and extending to the middle of the glacier, taking with it countless blocks of ice and covering the crevasses smoothly. A wide fan of clean snow and ice debris now extends a thousand feet onto the flat glacier below the icefall. The right half of the icefall now looks as if a gigantic shovel had taken a clean scoop downward.”—Ed.]

1This was the first ascent by the route here described. The ascent by Joseph T. Hazard and the Fuhrer brothers in 1920 was made not up the Icefall but via the snow fingers on Wapowety Cleaver.

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