American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Washington, Mount Rainier National Park, Mount Rainier, Backstage Pass

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2001

Accounts from the various climbs and expeditions of the world are listed geographically from north to south and from west to east within the noted countries. We begin our coverage with the Contiguous United States and move to Alaska in order for the climbs in the Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains to segue into the St. Elias climbs in Canada.

Unless noted otherwise, accounts cover activity in the 2000 calendar year (January 1-December 31). First-person accounts from winter 2000-2001 activity and shoulder-season areas (e.g., Patagonia) are included when possible. Winter climbers and those returning from the southern hemisphere can help us in future volumes by submitting accounts as soon as possible. We encourage climbers to submit accounts of other notable activity from the various Greater Ranges to help us maintain complete records.

A chart on page 471 gives a useful comparison of the various rock climbing ratings readers will find in the accounts below. For conversions of meters to feet, multiply by 3.28; for feet to meters, multiply by 0.30.

Mount Rainier, Backstage Pass. Claiming an entirely new route on Mount Rainier in the year 2000 is impossible; claiming an exciting variation to an old climbing line isn’t. Backstage Pass is a distinctive couloir that cuts through a rime-encrusted mosaic of volcanic rock of the romantically named Sunset Amphitheater to gain the upper Sunset Ridge and Liberty Cap. Its climbing conditions fall in and out of favor and are risky to gauge unless the long approach is made, and it remained untouched until the Rainier climbing rangers and I decided it was an excellent location for our mountaineering and alpine rescue workshop last May.

The climb begins on the Westside Road at 2,800 feet and follows the normal Tahoma Glacier approach. Ascend through old growth forest, subalpine and alpine meadows to gain the Puyallup Cleaver, a rocky ridge that divides the Tahoma and South Mowich glaciers. Most teams need two days to reach an advance base camp. Our variation left the Puyallup Cleaver at 11,300 feet above St. Andrews Rock. There, we traversed north across the South Mowich Glacier into the impressive Sunset Amphitheater, an immense cirque of near-vertical head- walls of vibrantly layered rock capped with ice. This is one of Rainier’s most beautiful, and rarely visited, destinations. Our goal was the large 1,500-foot couloir that bisects the amphitheater headwall to secretly gain the upper mountain.

We placed camp at 11,600 feet on the South Mowich Glacier and prepared for a rapid ascent the next morning, May 25. Shortly after sunrise, Paul Charlton, David Gottlieb, Glenn Kessler, Dee Patterson, Jeremy Shank and I took off for the couloir. Feeling good about the terrain and preferring to avoid belays, we stashed the ropes in our packs after crossing the bergschrund right of a large rock buttress near 12,300 feet.

Once on route, the climb became a crank-fest up ideal 45- to 60-degree snow and ice conditions. About 600 feet into the ever-narrowing chute, we veered to the climber’s right. Here, the couloir grew increasingly steep as it made its way through rime ice and snow-encrusted rock bands. The crest of Sunset Ridge—and a 360-degree view—was gained at 13,800 feet. From there, we pushed through intense winds up the last 400 feet of glaciated ridge to top out at Liberty Cap. Descent was made via the Tahoma Glacier Sickle.

With 30-plus Rainier routes’ worth of experience amongst the team, everyone agreed that Backstage Pass surpasses the commonly lauded standards on Rainier.

Mike Gauthier

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