Mount Rainier with Pro Guiding Service
May 26th to May 30th 2008
By Evan Wang
"Well, this really bites!" "What was I thinking when I signed up for this?!" "This is not my idea of fun!" Those and several other choice thoughts were being muttered under my breath as I plodded slowly up the Kautz glacier behind Martin Volken on day three of our five day trip. Equipment issues, lack of experience, giant blisters, and deficiencies in my technique all compounding to exhaust me beyond caring. All spring as I prepared for this trip I thought about how exciting it would be to ski off Mount Rainier. At this moment however, what I really wanted was an avalanche to come down and put me out of my misery.
What exactly compelled me, a long time avid resort bound snowboarder and skier, to try this ski mountaineering trip? It started with the purchase of alpine touring (AT) ski gear a few years ago, which seems to be all the rage lately. I had climbed a few mountains by the traditional method, and when I attended an REI clinic where Martin mentioned a ski descent of Mount Rainier, I enthusiastically signed up despite my relative inexperience at touring. Was I in for an eye-opener!
My first inkling came when I met second guide Ben Haskell and the other clients: Scott Kushino, a longtime Pro Guiding Service client who was back for his second go round having gotten sick just prior to last year's trip, and Jim Bailey, another veteran PGS client. Not only was I the newbie with PGS and the least experienced touring skier of the bunch, I noticed that my standard mountain climbing pack was considerably larger than everyone else's pack and my alpine twin-tip Salomon fatties with Naxo bindings probably weighed as much as everyone else's skis and binding combined – a "slackcountry" setup as Ben would note. Apparently in the light and fast-moving world of ski touring size does matter and bigger is definitely not better.
We started out leaving Paradise on Monday heading up the Muir snowfields under overcast skies with hot and muggy conditions. Scott and Jim zoomed ahead with me struggling mightily to keep up. By the time I had turned onto the Paradise glacier to our first camp site, the skies opened up and the rain came drizzling down. We all enjoyed a generally miserable evening in our tents.
The next morning the rain had stopped and we made our way across the Paradise, Cowlitz, and Ingraham glacier towards the Whitman glacier and our destination of Little Tahoma Peak. Martin had a bad feeling about the snow conditions and determined that our return route would become too hazardous should we spend the hours continuing to the summit. Since we all wanted to eventually return safely, we did the prudent thing and turned around. The mountain was not in a giving mood that day. On the way back though, we enjoyed a view of the huge icefall on the lower Ingraham. Martin, Jim, and Scott toured all the way up the Paradise glacier to Camp Muir and down the Muir Snowfields back to our camp. Ben and I took a more direct route where he patiently taught touring skills 101 and worked on correcting a number of my self-taught bad habits.
Our plan for the third day had been to make the short move over to the Wilson Cleaver and position ourselves for a charge up the Fuhrer Finger. Martin, however, had doubts about the safety of climbing and skiing the Finger. As I learned, plans change on a dime based on what the mountain gives and you had better be prepared to adapt. Having anticipated a short tour, I neglected to pack lunch in an accessible spot – a decision I would soon regret. Our new plans called for us to traverse the Lower Nisqually, the Wilson, and the Van Trump glaciers all the way over and up the Kautz glacier. What started out as a short day turned into a very long day indeed!
All of this had me climbing the steep Kautz glacier towards our destination of Camp Hazard in the afternoon with my tank well past empty. By the time I reached camp later that afternoon, I knew that it would likely be foolish and possibly dangerous to go for the summit the next morning given the in the shape I was in, so I elected to call an end to my climb rather than flounder high up on the mountain.
Now Camp Hazard is a cool place to stay on the mountain. I remembered that it was named after Joseph Hazard and not for the fact that it is located below a very impressive ice cliff. Also, with all the "blue bags" that we were toting after four days of touring, the camp would also have been aptly named Camp Biohazard. The vista of neighboring peaks to the south was spectacular and all in all, it was a very neat place to spend a rest day recovering for my descent down the mountain.
Martin, Jim, Scott and Ben meanwhile geared up for the summit charge at first light of the morning. About four and a half hours later they were back in camp where Ben proceeded to tell me about the fabulous powder run coming down from the summit. At first I was very much inclined not to believe him because in the previous few days he had overused the phrase "it's going to be blower" to describe all the potential snow conditions we'd encounter, so much so that I nicknamed him "Blower Boy." However, when Jim and Scott corroborated the story, and Martin commented how rare finding powder off the summit was, I started believing him.
After one more cold night at Camp Hazard, we broke camp the next morning for our ski descent under bluebird skies. Conditions were superb coming down the Turtle Snowfield to the Wilson glacier and I was having a blast finally skiing downhill for a change. Near the base of the Fuhrer Finger, Martin commented that with the snow conditions being the way they were, a run down the Finger would probably be excellent later that afternoon. We cached our heavy loads, busted out the skins and ski crampons, and started climbing the Finger. After the third man-killer rock whizzed past the party, I learned what the term "fast transition" was all about as we quickly switched from climbing mode to downhill mode to get out of there. Once again, the mountain was reminding us who the boss was.
With conditions still being superb, we once again charged down the Wilson and onto the lower Nisqually glacier making turn after turn on fine spring corn. "Harvest Time" as Ben would say. Too soon the Nisqually Bridge came into sight as we passed the toe of the Nisqually glacier. We sat down next to the headwaters of the Nisqually River basking in the sun while Martin went to retrieve his truck.
While I felt a small amount of disappointment at not being able to reach and ski off of the summit, a near 8000' ski run wasn't a bad consolation. I had learned a great deal this week about what ski mountaineering was about and what skills were needed to pull a trip like this off. Yo-yoing runs out of bounds of the local ski areas with my pseudo alpine setup did little to prepare me for a touring trip of this magnitude. However with some education, different equipment, and a bit of work learning some new skills hopefully I'll be back in a few years for a more successful second go at this.