American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mount Ranier's Willis Wall in Winter

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1971

Mount Rainier’s Willis Wall in Winter

James F. Wickwire

FIRST climbed by Ed Cooper and Mike Swayne in 1962, Mount Rainier’s 4000-foot Willis Wall yielded to two other successful ascents in 1963 and 1965. The Cooper-Swayne route stays left of the 250-foot high ice cliff which lines the Wall’s crest and exits high on Curtis Ridge. The other two routes, however, ascend two of three prominent ribs or buttresses bisecting the 45° face. All three of the ribs lie directly beneath the ice cliff. The first of these, put up by Dave Mahre, Fred Dunham, Don N. Anderson and me in 1963, follows the left-hand rib to mid-face where a traverse is made inward to the central rib upon which the climb is completed through a break in the ice cliff. Two years later, Dean Caldwell and Paul Dix climbed the central rib from the bergschrund, duplicating the upper half of our 1963 route.

The urge to do a Rainier north-side route in winter as well as the tantalizing prospect of the unclimbed right rib prompted Alex Bertulis and me to make an aerial reconnaissance of the mountain in late January. Our flight, made during the first clear weather in weeks, revealed the possibility of an exit ramp through the ice cliff where it is shaped like a sickle just below Liberty Cap, Rainier’s northernmost summit. We also observed a potentially troublesome crevassed area near a sharp corner in the ice cliff beneath which we would pass as our intended route would lead high into the sickle. The good weather did not last, and it was not until nine days later that we were able to leave for the mountain.

Following an afternoon’s walk from Ipsut Creek campground to the Carbon Glacier’s snout (3700 feet), we hurriedly scooped out a platform in a snow bank. We were without a tent or down parkas, relying on a two-man bivouac sack and the probability of suitable snow-cave sites. The next morning, under a brilliantly clear sky, we snowshoed directly up the glacier to the base of Liberty Ridge (8600 feet) where in two hours we constructed one of Alex’s patented snow caves. We had hoped to be able to communicate with a friend in Seattle via two-way AAC radios, but could never make contact, apparently because of their limited range. Our sense of isolation was thereby intensified.

The Wall appeared to have an adequate snow cover, but more importantly, there was no evidence of recent avalanche activity. Anticipating a one-day climb if things went well in overcoming the bergschrund and finding an exit through the ice cliff, Alex led off from the snow cave shortly after dawn. Less than an hour later we were just below the bergschrund. Fortunately, new snow had accumulated to a sufficient depth below the lip of the schrund to allow us to climb over it without difficulty. Alex continued in the lead up the exposed 45° snow slope, forming the base of our rib. He moved quickly over two or three incipient rock bands before reaching the route’s first real obstacle, a 75-foot rock band. We had left our rock pins behind (not expecting any rock suitable for their use), so Alex was forced to tie off an ice piton as he lay-backed the upper few feet of the band.

Taking the lead from Alex, I kicked steps to the base of the Brumal Buttress, the route’s most prominent feature. Rather than tackling the buttress head-on, I discovered a narrow ice gully around to the left which led steeply to the top of the buttress. We continued along the buttress’ crest for a lead before again circumventing another vertical step by ascending a second gully around to the left. On mixed ground, we climbed a series of snow pitches and rock bands that ultimately led to a rounded snow dome.

Once on the dome, we were greeted by a stupendous view. The 250-foot high ice cliff loomed directly above, overpowering as it seemed suspended in its verticality. No longer would the buttress provide any protection from ice avalanches, and for the remainder of the climb we were virtually at the mercy of whatever forces held the ice cliff together. A long exposed open slope of several hundred feet took us directly below the ice cliff and its supporting base of rock. As Alex prepared to cross a shallow couloir, an ice avalanche roared down the couloir about 30 feet in front of him. It was a small one, but nevertheless shattered the spell of quiet and solitude that had been with us for the past two days. With a belay from Alex, I moved rapidly across the couloir to the protection of a rock outcropping. For the next three hours we climbed in a line parallel to the ice cliff as it curved up toward Liberty Cap. On this portion of the route, we surmounted a succession of small rock bands and snow terraces interspersed with ice. One pitch stands out: a bulge of 60° ice just a few feet from the ice cliff, an awesome sight, directly overhead. One ice block, which appeared particularly dangerous, seemed to be hanging in air, scarcely supported by the ice cliff.

The wind had now increased, whipping the snow into a frenzy. Poor visibility and a cloud cap over the summit showed the fine weather was about over. In the waning light of late afternoon, Alex led over two more short rock bands. Looking to the left, where we expected the exit ramp we had seen from the air two weeks before, we were dismayed to observe that although the rudiments of a ramp did in fact exist, we could reach it only over 100 feet of vertical, unstable rock and boiler-plate ice. Moreover the so-called ramp lay directly beneath a section of the ice cliff with a 120° overhang. Obviously, in the rapidly deteriorating weather the “ramp” did not tempt us. We climbed higher in the hope of finding another exit ramp. The vertical rock band rose 50 feet directly above us and so we traversed to the right where it tapered in size. I led over the band with a strenuous layback move. The upper ice cliff lay flush against the top of the rock band and no feasible route existed across to the second rudimentary ramp. Our “exit routes” were in fact formidable obstacles, extremely difficult of access. In the growing darkness, the immediate need was for a place to spend the night. After a rope-length across the 45° slope toward Liberty Ridge, we reached a point where the snow was deepest. While I held the packs, Alex quickly cut a platform. Since the snow over the ice was only two feet deep, he hacked it out in the ice beneath with just enough room to sit down; the slope immediately above us formed a partial roof. Sixty feet up the slope was the base of the summit ice cliff. It was definitely not an ideal bivouac site.

As we settled down for a long night, a thunderous crack and rumble resounded below. An ice avalanche of gigantic proportions had fallen from the ice corner beneath which we had passed four hours before. A cloud of ice particles filtered up for a moment high above our perch. During the night, two more ice avalanches roared out of the corner. Snow constantly blew in around our heads throughout the miserable bivouac. Finally, after absolutely no sleep, we made preparations to leave in the first light. Because of the storm we decided against the summit ice cliff and instead began the traverse to Liberty Ridge. Encountering patches of hard ice, it took time to complete the six leads. Upon reaching the ridge, we discovered that only by rappelling could we get to the snow slope to the west. Alex rappelled for 70 feet to the 50° ice slope and pendulumed away from the base of the rock to reach easier ground. It would have been foolhardy to climb to Liberty Cap a few hundred easy feet above us.

Descending the broad slope in almost zero visibility, we came onto rock which I remembered from the previous May as forming the apex of the “Black Pyramid” on Liberty Ridge. Knowing we could now descend even in such atrocious conditions, we stopped for our first warm food in more than thirty hours. The soup, tea, and fruit drink Alex concocted were magnificent. Except for Alex’s unexpected fall into a crevasse, the descent

of the ridge was uneventful, although several icy sections required belays and step-cutting. After reaching the snow cave at the ridge’s base late in the afternoon, we headed down the glacier, picking our way through the substantial debris from the ice avalanches. Racing to beat the darkness, we retraced our old snowshoe tracks down the glacier. A wrong turn in getting off it resulted in another bivouac. It was not until the following morning that we made it out to the campground, where we were met by two apprehensive park rangers.

Summary of Statistics:

AREA: Cascade Mountains, Washington.

ASCENT: Mount Rainier, first winter ascent of Willis Wall by a completely new route, Brumal Buttress; also first climb of Rainier’s north side in winter and possibly the first complete descent of Liberty Ridge, February 9 to 12, 1970. NCCS V, F7.

PERSONNEL: Alex Bertulis, James Wickwire.

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