January 8-9, 2002
Jason, Ben, Josh
A look back. Our ski descent from Cadaver Gap is in green. The rest is hidden.
Mount Rainier is a distraction. Whenever I'm climbing or skiing elsewhere in the cascades I can't help but think what it would be like to be on top of Rainier with my skis. This thought is usually a frightening one because in the winter the temperature hovers well below freezing not to mention the wind speed and visibility. Clear days provide the exception. We often ask ourselves how much we'd pay to be transported to the summit and which route we'd choose to ski. Thousands of dollars and Central Mowich is our usual response. Tens of dollars and Ingraham Direct is our more realistic response. Reality echoes the usual, though, a phrase that we have come to live by Ė Ďearn your turnsí. It seems, over the next few days, each of our turns would be earned with pain and sweat. No problem. As mountaineers, we crave the challenge of the ascent, and as skiers, we crave the challenge of the descent Ė and Ė as ski mountaineers, we covet them both, the ascent and descent, as the ultimate experience in mountaineering. The pain and sweat is only a means to an end.
Monday night we packed and Tuesday morning we found ourselves parked at the Visitor Center. Outside Benís Mazda the weather wasnít too friendly. It was snowing hard, the wind was blowing, and it was foggy. None of us were very inclined to even leave the car, very much, climb the mountain. Josh was certain the climb wouldnít go. He put the odds at a million to one. Truth be told, if I had my own car I would have drove back home, but Ben had a feeling, and he wasnít about to waste gas. We dressed, shouldered our packs, and headed up the mountain. Maybe our chances were a million to one, but how would we know if we didnít try.
Where is everybody? Jason and Josh preparing for battle.
I guess it was near the bottom of Pan Point where I realized we werenít going to make it to Muir. Looking back I could see no one behind and doubted anyone had even left the parking lot. Up ahead, Josh and Ben had disappeared. A few minutes later I saw them next to a rock shelter preparing to carry their skis. By the time I was ready to go I donít think anyone had said anything. We just put our heads down and battled the wind. We had a long way to go and that long way turned out to be about 200 yards. Ben was skinning again but had managed to slip down a few hundred feet. There was about 2 inches of snow on top of ice and so he decided to walk again. About halfway up he noticed wands and a snow cave. He yelled at Josh and I, saying something about people there. Just as Josh and I showed up Ben yelled inside the cave, "What are you fools doing up here?" In fact, there was no one there and we were the fools. At that point, we could barely stand because of the wind so going up was no longer a viable option.
The next few hours we spent digging and setting up camp. The cave turned out to be a lifesaver. The snow we dug out was used as a wind block so we could set up my tent. The cave wasnít big enough to sleep three, but the space offered us a place to eat, relax, talk, and just enough space for Ben to bivi. Josh and I placed our tent in front of the cave and used the fly to cover the entrance. As Josh put it, "This is a little piece of heaven." Ben had brought a lantern that provided vital light. We spent the next few hours eating everything we had and drinking as much water as we could. If the weather cleared we wanted to be ready. If not, we sure didnít want to carry it back down.
Before I went to bed I thought I saw a star.
Jason and Josh wishing they were somewhere else.
My sleeping bag isnít the greatest in the world. I was jealous of Benís down bag cause my 3D-insulation had long since expired. Somehow, I tried to concentrate on staying warm and trying to sleep. I didnít sleep much. About one in the morning Ben said the weather was beautiful. At that point, I didnít know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. I guess it was good because we could climb and a bad thing because I had to get up. I ground my teeth and faced the music. Once my boots were on things were getting better and as soon as I fired the stove up and consumed some Top Ramen and hot chocolate, I was a new man. Ben ate oatmeal and Josh had hot chocolate. Before packing, I went outside and could see that our little piece of heaven had invested in some serious real-estate. I couldnít see a cloud in the sky and, best of all, there wasnít a breath of wind. By that time I had a grin from ear to ear. After a moment or two, I returned to the cave to pack. A million to one. Heck yea! A million to one.
Okay, so we had a long way to go. We were at 7000ft, an hour from the parking lot. Camp Muir was another two hours away and it was already 2am. We had to get moving.
Skinning up was a bear. We came across patches of ice from time to time but I guess it was better than skinning up deep powder.
Ben was the first to reach Muir; Josh and I werenít too far behind. We stopped to look at the hut, which was buried. We would have been in trouble had we gotten there the day before and had to dig in. So far we hadnít stopped and Ben was already climbing over to Cathedral Gap so Josh and I continued. We met him halfway and stopped to get a drink before continuing. A few minutes later we stopped again at the bottom of Cathedral Gap to put on our crampons. This turned out to be the only time we had to take off our skis baring a few technical difficulties. After that, walking would have been impossible. Skinning now became a chore and our progress slowed dramatically. Instead of ice there was a few feet of packed powder to contend with. Now we felt better about the ski, but worse about the climb. Deep snow on open terrain is never fun to climb. We reasoned that it was safe to continue, and yet our ears were open to the definitive "Wooffff" that would signify our end. With one route to choose from and nobody else within miles, surviving an avalanche was slim to none. Youíd have a better chance jumping out of a plane without a parachute.
Jason and Josh skinning above Ingraham Flats.
Somewhere around Cadaver Gap Ben snapped his first photo. The light was amazing. Sunrises on Rainier are the best Iíve ever had the privilege to witness and this one was no different. I spent as much time looking behind me as I did looking up. Even so, we slowly made our way up the Ingraham glacier, switchback after switchback. At 12,000ft Ben went to the back and Josh took the lead. Once he could go no further, I took the lead. Finally, we decided to rest at 12,500ft. Getting some food and water before the last push was necessary. The view was amazing and the weather was even better than we could have hoped for. We didnít want to stay long because it was already midday and we had a lot of vertical left. After twenty minutes we headed out.
Josh and Jason near the top of Disappointment Cleaver. Our skin track can be seen in the background.
By 13,500ft we were more tired than we cared to admit. Skinning up 30 to 40-degree slopes in deep snow was sapping away our energy. By that time we were concentrating more on going up than on our surroundings. What happened next is a lesson that is best learned from others. It so happens that you get to learn it from us. You must understand that we all make calculated risks when we climb. Sacrificing food for water, ice axe for crampons, boots for tennis shoes, or even a rope for time. Calculated risks are just that, and they carry the possibility of getting in a bad situation, which can result in injury or death. We started from Pan Point and even though Ben carried a rope we left it packed because skinning seemed relatively harmless. Time isnít a luxury in the winter and climbing/skining with a rope takes time. We felt the time gained was worth the risk. What we didnít expect was the risk becoming reality.
At around 13,500ft I decided to ditch the rope that I had carried but neglected to use. There was a narrow depression ahead of me that looked like a good place to stop. Josh had already crossed it and Jason pulled in just as I was about to take off my pack. When I set my pack down the slope around us collapsed. At first I thought it was an avalanche having experienced a few in my past. Then I noticed walls on both sides and realized that we were free falling into a crevasse. We only fell about 10ft but it was long enough to make me wonder if and when I would ever stop. The blocks from the snowbridge reformed and held us on a constriction but we could see the depthless blue to both sides. I popped off my skis and was able to climb out using two self-arrest grips. Jason handed me our gear and climbed out using an ice axe. Josh could do little but watch as he was on the uphill side of our newfound crevasse that spanned a good portion of the slope.
Jason and I eventually found a way around and we continued to the summit. The rope stayed in my pack because I was stubborn and upset. This was my 5th close call within 5 years (1st crevasse, 4 avalanche, numerous kayak). I think it's a bit strange that of all the places to ditch my rope I chose a snowbridge that ended up collapsing. If there were ever a sign this had to be it. Too bad I was too peeved to notice it then. However, with a little time and oxygen I hope to learn from my mistake.
Ben and I took a good 30 minutes to reflect on our ordeal and another 10 or 15 to cross the slopewide crevasse we had neglected to take full measure of in the first place. We continued because there was no reason not to. Mostly, we didnít want to acknowledge what had happened. Afterwards our attention was crystal clear.
Jason sitting next to the crevasse that nearly killed him. Our skin track leading up to it is behind him. That is pretty much where we climbed out. You can see some of the snow that held us on a constriction. You don't want to know what's below that. You can also see that this crevasse was impossible to spot without a probe.
The upper slopes were a mix of wind-scoured styrofoam and powder. Skinning became easier, but time was running out. Since Ben and I werenít up to leading, Josh took the lead. Eventually, he became wore out so I took his place. It wasnít long before we reached the summit crater. At that point, we figured we should turn around and enjoy the ski. It was already 3 in the afternoon and if anything went wrong, we would be stuck in the dark. We wanted to go to the true summit but that would take close to an hour that we werenít willing to sacrifice so we turned around. Our luck had long since expired and when it came to time, we wanted to have some to spare.