Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mt. Rainier -- Attempt on Kautz Glacier

I am by nature a cautious person, I tend not to take what I consider to be unnecessary risks. I wonder if sometimes my cautious nature holds me back? 

This past weekend while climbing a big peak, I made a hasty decision, it resulted in us not summiting, was it the correct choice? What lessons can I take from the experience? How do I weigh the risks associated with alpinism with the reward of standing on the summit?

Myself, Troy and Michael headed up to the Pacific Northwest to try and climb the Kautz glacier route on Mt. Rainier. The route involves crossing 2 glaciers, 400-600' of moderate technical ice climbing, and over 9000' of elevation gain on the most heavily glaciated mountain in the lower 48.

Mt Rainier in its glory. Photo credit: Troy K.
On Saturday morning at 5 am I picked up Troy, and we began the 14 hour drive to Mt. Rainier national park. Michael was already in Seattle and would meet us at the trailhead. As we headed up the I5 the weather for progressively worse. A huge storm was pounding the Pacific Northwest. Not an auspicious start to the trip.

Raining on the way to Rainier
The forecast called for clear skies for the next couple of days. However, the summit of Rainier had received over a meter of fresh snow, conditions were uncertain, and avi danger was high. But the blue skies and warm temps had us smiling as we packed up, picked up our climbing permits and headed off down the trail to the mountain.

Blue skies warm temps Nice way to start the day. Photo credit: Troy K.

Troy - always stoked to climb

Early on the approach, we had to cross the Nisqually glacier, which is on the Southwest face of the mountain. We roped up and got to put that glacier travel training we did together into practice.

Crevasse on the Nisqually. Photo credit: Troy K. 

The crevasses on the glacier are very small for the most part, but because of the recent snow were totally covered up. It was a small shock when Michael punched through one of the small crevasses, just his leg sinking in. Sort of funny, but a very poignant reminder that there is a very real possibility that one could fall into these deadly features, with more drastic consequences than a simple posthole. 

Snow field above the Nisqually. Photo credit: Troy K.

On the ascent. Photo credit: Troy K.

After the glacier crossing, it was ~5000-6000' of slogging up snow slopes and rocky ridges. It would have been boring if it were not for the absolutely stunning scenery. This is why I climb mountains, they are the most beautiful places in the world. Photos just don't do them justice, but nonetheless, have a look at what the lens can capture. The following are credit to Troy K. Thanks Troy for being photographer on this mission!

Roped on the ridge
Upper section of the Nisqually glacier

Michael on steep snow. Photo credit Troy K.

One we reached the Turtle snowfield, there were signs of recent avalanches, so we traversed onto rocky volcanic choss to avoid the objective hazards posed by the snow fields. 

On the rocky ridge. Photo credit Troy K.

Recent avalanche
We reached our high camp, called Camp Hazard which sits below the ice cliffs of the Kautz glacier, very close to the technical part of the climb. It took us about 7-8 hours to gain the 6000' to the camp.

On the way up we passed several parties that were bailing, no one had been abel to make it past the ice chute above Camp Hazard because of all the recent snow fall. 

 Normally that kind of an approach would not have been a big deal for me, but I was completely wasted. I am not sure if it was altitude, or over-training. I have decided for the next few weeks to taper all my training and see if I regain my fitness. 

We built our camp, and began the long process of melting snow for water. 

Portrait of an overtrained, wasted climber. Photo credit - Troy K.
Portrait of a stoked climber. Photo credit - Troy K.
Portrait of an inexhaustible climber - Photo credit - Troy K. 
Comfort at Camp Hazard - Photo credit Troy K.
Ice cliffs above Camp Hazard

Troy and the camp kitchen

We woke up at 2:30 am and were on the way to the climb by about 4 am. We used a fixed rope to traverse a narrow ledge, then made out way to the ice chute. We roped up, and started simul-climbing the chute. I led, leaving 1-2 pieces of pro in between us once things started to get steep. 

Off we go.

Simul climbing the first ramp
The chute levels off a bit, then there is another few hundred feet of increasingly steep alpine ice. The normal approach would be to walk up the snow in the centre of the chute, but it was waist deep, so we climbed up the side of the serac instead, and continued to simul-climb.

Simul climbing the first chute - Photo credit Troy K. 

Troy starting up the side of the serac

As the ice got steeper, I plugged in an ice screw belay, and we pitched out the last steep 45 meter ice pitch. The weather became increasingly bad as we got higher. I was leading AI2+/3 ice, with a 50 lb backpack, at 11,000' in a white out snow storm. New experience for me.  When I topped out at the top of the pitch, I could only see about 5 feet in front of me. 

The I heard shouts, and a party of 5 climbers was bailing. They had been up to 13,000', and had been travelling for hours in a complete whiteout, unable to see anything. I made the decision to rap out as well. I had no interest in navigating a dangerous crevassed glacier up above in a complete whiteout.  Down I went raping off of ice horns. 

Dealing with ropes in the white out - Photo credit Troy K.

Troy and Michael were freezing cold, from waiting for me to lead,  so we headed down. A combination of raping off of snow bollards, ice horns and down climbing had us back to camp Hazard. Of course the weather cleared up once we were back to camp, although the summit stayed in a cloud for the entire day.

A long 6-7 slog back down to the trailhead. Beautiful views the entire way.

Mt Adam off in the distance
Heading down. Photo credit - Troy K. 

Views on the descent
On the way down, and a couple days after the climb, I was really torn up inside by my choice to bail, especially since things cleared up afterwards. 

Did I make the right choice? Was I too cautious this time? Maybe I should be prepared to take greater risks in the mountains? Is it worth it?

Although I think it was the safe choice to make, given the information at the time, I still feel like I need to be prepared to take greater risks.

However, what I really regret is making the choice by myself, and not really consulting with Michael and Troy. This is what is bothering me the most. 

So my lesson here is next time things are looking dicey, even if I am alone at the sharp end of the rope, I will make sure to consult with my partners before deciding anything. 

Summiting is not everything, and I took a lot away from this trip. This was my first attempt at a larger peak that required technical ice climbing and glacier travel. I feel much better prepared for Mt Athabasca later this summer, and to go back to Rainier in the future.

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