2004 Rainier Circumnav Trip Report
by Adam Angel
"A circumnavigation of Mt. Rainier?... I would love to be part of that!" I said to Eric Simonson, when he mentioned that Mt. Rainier Alpine Guides would be offering the trip again in June of 2004. I knew that this trip was a very rare experience and that it had only been successfully guided a few times. It was a perfect opportunity to see and set foot on parts of the mountain that few had walked on before. In the many times that I have been to the summit, I know how easy it is to lock into our objective, Columbia Crest. While this is certainly a worthwhile objective it is only a taste of this wonderful Park. This journey would give us a whole new intimacy with the mountain. I remember the first time I circled the mountain on the Wonderland Trail. I had over 40 summits at the time, and was inspired each day, by our new view of the mountain. It was as if I were discovering a new alpine playground each day. The intimacy of completing a circle of the mountain between 7,000 and 11,000 feet would bring that even closer and immerse us in some of the most exciting and beautiful route finding of my life.
The very first circumnavigation of Rainier was organized and achieved by Hal Foss on the Fourth of July weekend, 1967. His party included Lynn Buchanan and Jim Carlson. The next year he repeated the journey with Joseph "Bill" Orr (Chief Ranger at the time), and seasonal rangers Lee Henkle, Jim Erskine, and Dee Molenaar. Their route began at the White River Campground and exited via the Frying Pan Creek Trail. Our 2004 route would be exactly the same except for we would circle clockwise, not counterclockwise. Additional circumnavigations were made in the following years and the first successful guiding of the route was done on a Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI) Expedition Seminar in 1975 led by Gary Issacs and Dan Boyd. It was 15 years later before another guided attempt was made, and in May of 1990 George Dunn of RMI made their bid on skis. The group reportedly found good conditions for skiing, but was forced to abandon just short of completion due to white out conditions. Mt. Rainier Alpine Guides (MRAG) made guided attempts in July of 1997 (clockwise) and 1999 (counter clockwise) and accomplished the entire circuit over these two attempts, though neither trip went all the way around due to difficulties with crevasses that slowed the groups. For 2004 the plan was to go in June, hopefully taking advantage of the better glacier travel conditions of the "early season". Going earlier was not without other concerns, however, in particular the likelihood of more unconsolidated snow and possible winter snowpack, especially on colder slopes. For this reason we would carry avalanche transceivers and plan our route with avalanche hazards in mind.
The 2004 MRAG circumnavigation began on June 11, considerably earlier than the previous MRAG attempts. From the beginning MRAG owners Eric Simonson and Paul Baugher recognized that such a serious trip needed a very strong team to safely do so much glacier travel. Any group would need to be 100% self-sufficient, and would need multiple leaders to take over when the route finding became too weird and stressful. For 2004, MRAG had put together a team of eleven climbers, two of whom who would need to leave partway around. This group would allow several strong rope teams and would hopefully give enough "horsepower" to push through bad weather and route conditions…and yes, we had both weather and tricky route conditions!
One of the notable things about the circumnavigation is that in theory you shouldn't encounter the harsh high altitude weather that could be thrown at you on a Rainier summit climb. On the other hand, you could be stuck in the cold and wet marine layer that you can usually climb above on trips to the summit. On the 2004 trip, we had both high altitude cold and wind, as well as marine moisture in the form of snow and rain. On the first day of the program, Friday, June 11, 2004, the team met at 8:00 AM at Crystal Mountain Ski Resort. It was snowing lightly at 4500' and we were happy to find a warm dry place to get together and sort gear in the lodge. Co-leading the trip with me was MRAG guide Jason Tanguay from Tacoma, just back from a successful climb of Mt. Everest. Also guiding with us was Anne Keller, from Mazama, WA, a Rainier guiding veteran and very accomplished mountain guide, heli-ski guide and professional ski patroller. Aspirant MRAG guides Steve Shepro and Peter Brosseau completed the guide team. MRAG guide Mason Stafford also joined us for the first three days of the trip, at which time he needed to go down (via the Muir snowfield) to go guide on Mt. Adams.
Our clients included Chelsea (from Poulsbo, WA), Ricardo (from Los Angeles, AC), Brad (from Colorado), Richard (from Seattle), and Linda (from Tacoma). Together they added a lot of "horsepower" to the team, which was so important for safe glacier travel. After introductions, we spent a couple of hours sorting through gear and really trying to lighten our loads, as the planned time of 7 days on the mountain can equal some very heavy packs. As items are taken out of packs and put back into duffels for storage our smiles grew bigger. When we are all done with the preparations, we jumped in the Ashford Mountain Center shuttle van and Larry, the AMC driver, took us to the trailhead, just inside the White River entrance of Mt. Rainier National Park.
We began the 2004 MRAG Rainier Circumnavigation on the Fryingpan Creek Trail. The light wet snow had turned to light rain and had stopped by the time we shouldered our packs. Our hike through forest of Fryingpan Creek was utterly pleasant and it felt good to begin our long anticipated journey. Something about actually beginning a trip does wonders for the anxieties of preparing for them. Soon we had arrived at Fryingpan Creek, where the bridge washed out from the floods of autumn 2003. Before my pack had hit the sandy gravel of the streambed, Mason and Anne were bounding up the creek looking for a place to cross. After several well balanced hops from rock to rock and one or two slightly wet feet we were on the other side. From here we ascended up snow slopes and into the "Summer Land" region of the Park. It was mid afternoon and we would need to ascend some fairly steep slopes to gain our camp at the edge of the Fryingpan Glacier. There we dropped our packs and had a snow school to practice walking on steep slopes and self-arrest with the ice axe. The school was a great refresher and a nice break from being underneath those heavy packs. From the school area we ascended steep slopes to our first camp at 7000' on Meany Crest. The cooling temperatures of the evening along with our gain in elevation gave us our first passing glimpses of the upper mountain. It was the perfect finishing touch to the day.
Saturday, Day 2. Our days begin early and go late, using the extended daylight hours of June to give us an edge on our objective. We woke at 5:30 to good clear weather. The clouds were low, providing us with good visibility for route finding that day. Our route would take us up and over the Fryingpan Glacier, the Whitman Crest, the Whitman Glacier and down onto the Ingraham Glacier. Crossing the relatively benign terrain around the east side of Little Tahoma, we arrived at the steep cleaver that separates the Whitman Glacier from the Ingraham Glacier. Looking over the glacier below us we could see a clear route across to Lower Cathedral Gap. Within 2 minutes we were engulfed by the warming rising clouds that lay so innocently below us earlier in the morning, making us glad that we had received a short view of the route below…at least we knew that the route would "go". We took a good long break here hoping the weather might improve. With no improvement we began the steep and rocky descent onto the glacier, belaying some sections and taking extra care not to trundle rocks upon ourselves. The trip across our first major glacier was an uneventful cruise, and we arrived at the Lower Gap in good time. Crossing onto the Cowlitz Glacier and into a new wind aspect we were treated to a very brief clearing of the clouds. The clearing allowed us to briefly spot our destination, Camp 2 on the Cowlitz Flats at 9050'. Our view was short though, and again we were engulfed in clouds. Picking our way up the glacier to camp we knew that we had put in a solid long day and were right on track. As we pulled into camp the winds began to pick up. With the wind increasing we were quick to pitch our tents and get our kitchen dug. The day began to feel complete as we donned dry socks and sipped our hot drinks in the still increasing winds. Dinner was quick and we were into our bags as the snow began to fall.
There are nights on the Mountain for the best sleep of your life and there are nights for the worst. I won't call this the worst, but I didn't sleep much. The winds continued through the night steady 35 mph gusting to 65. It snowed harder and harder with each passing hour. The days in front of us became blurry and I began making up alternative plans. Scenarios of " this if that, and that if this" went through our heads. Our route the next day would take us around, on and below the now freshly snow loaded slopes of Anvil Rock. As the sky began to lighten and our tent began to warm in the morning the winds continued to blow and it became hard to tell whether or not it was still snowing or if the wind was just blowing what had already fallen in the night. At the time we didn't know it but this was probably the same storm that caused the deaths of two climbers in an avalanche high on Liberty Ridge.
Sunday, Day 3. Upon getting out of the tent we found snow drifted up to 2 feet deep around our tent and the snow loaded slopes below Anvil Rock looked plump and pregnant, ready to go at any moment. We could either sit the day out or change our route. After a slow crawl out of our sacs, a slow breakfast, and a slow pack the team decided unanimously to take the safer route, climbing (and trail breaking) instead up the long slopes of the Cowlitz Glacier to Camp Muir at 10,080'. From there we would be able to cross onto the Muir Snowfield without having to traverse steep avalanche prone slopes below Anvil Rock. It was about this time that the procrastination paid off, and by the time we were ready to start climbing, the skies began to clear. We ascended the Cowlitz and arrived at Camp Muir to find it essentially deserted. The camp holds up to 150 climbers per night during the busy weekends of summer, but the weather had cleared out all but about 7 climbers, who we found huddled in the Public Shelter. Only two tents were left standing outside. There were stories of tents getting "folded" that night, and climbers escaping down the Snowfield at daybreak. While it was very windy and cold, the visibility remained good down to about 9,000'. Our next objective would be an attempt to cross the Nisqually Glacier at about 9,400'. Before we continued on, though, we had to say goodbye to Mason, who would be heading down the snowfield to Paradise with Ricardo. Our number would be nine now: we said goodbye and headed for the Nisqually Glacier as they headed down the Snowfield to Paradise.
Rounding the bottom of Cowlitz Cleaver, Anne was the first to poke her nose into the broken and menacing Nisqually. Trying to stay far enough out of the avalanche danger zone below the Nisqually Ice Cliff and Ice Fall, but staying high enough to hit the only crossing point (~9500) onto the Wilson Glacier, she kept on probing with her ski pole and axe until she became dead-ended and couldn't get any further. We were about a third of the way across before she had to backtrack. Jason, on the other end of her rope turned it around and dropped further down the glacier. A few minutes later, Jason popped a leg into a crack and couldn't find a way around.
Next, I dropped my rope team down even further, losing more precious elevation that we would have to re-gain. From here, on slightly steeper slopes, I was able to contour in-between two crevasse systems and get up onto a convexity in the central glacier. Here the cracks went from following the contours to going against them. I went higher, wallowing in deep snow pockets sometimes up to my waist, but didn't see anything very promising other than a marginal looking snow bridge. Then I went lower and started poking around, only to break through a bridge up to my waist, my feet dangling in the air. Peter, who was right behind me (out-sizing and outweighing me), was a great confidence building "anchor", as I rolled myself out of my predicament to distribute my weight. There was no way that the route would "go" any lower so I kicked back up to the first bridge that I had looked at earlier.
On my belly now, squirming like a worm, I was able to get close enough to the edge of the crevasse to see the integrity of the bridge. It looked very solid underneath, but it was not very wide, and the top was loaded with lots of freshly melting snow that would prove treacherous. On my knees, I moved up to the bridge cutting with my ski pole and adze. After a few minutes of chopping, stomping, removing, compacting, and breathing really hard, the bridge seemed in condition to be crossed…and so it was. From there we ascended ramps until I was again dead-ended about &frac3/4; of the way across. From the top of the ramp I could see a route below that would take us right to our crossing point to the Wilson Glacier. I yelled back to Anne to traverse below me. Fifteen minutes later we were on the cleaver, with the Nisqually Glacier behind us.
From here Jason led us out onto the Wilson Glacier. Traversing on steep snow slopes above rock cliffs, he placed several pickets to prevent serious problems in the event of a fall. As we cleared the slopes above the cliffs and descended on to the seemingly smooth Wilson, the clouds began to catch up with us again. Reaching Wapowety Cleaver, once again engulfed in full whiteout, we put in our third camp just below the Castle at 8950'. It was late in the day now and the temperature was dropping with the sun. We were glad that we had made such progress today considering the weather, terrain, and late start. Everyone slept well that night!
Day 4 needed to be a big day if we were to have a chance of making it all the way around the Mountain. Waking up at 5:30, camp was broken quickly and breakfast choked down in a businesslike and efficient manner. Today's route would take us over the Van Trump, Kautz, Success, Pyramid, South Tahoma, and Tahoma Glaciers. Some of the terrain would be as difficult as the Nisqually Traverse on Day 3. Visibility was poor, but GPS waypoints pulled from the map would help to guide us from point to point. We knew that we had to cross the Success and Tahoma Cleavers at predetermined points, and Anne had downloaded these waypoints for the day into her GPS. Despite bad weather, the GPS allowed us to move quickly considering the conditions, and we found the waypoints to be within 200' of the actual target…very impressive precision for the scale of terrain that we were dealing with.
On the smaller Van Trump, Kautz, Success, and Pyramid glaciers the micro-route-finding was relatively easy, but when we reached Success Cleaver at 8200' and the weather had still not improved, we knew we would have some real challenges on the South Tahoma and Tahoma ahead of us. We took a good long break to see if we could at least get a glimpse of the South Tahoma Glacier to get a general feel of the layout, other than what we could determine from the aerial photos and topographic map. Whiteout conditions persisted but we had no choice but to press on. Anne began to pick her way across and to retrace the path of the last MRAG circumnavigation to make it here in 1997. Again, conditions became impassable and we switched leads. From the area where Anne was stopped by crevasses, I was able to follow one easy ramp up to 9000' on the Tahoma Cleaver. Here the wind picked up, the clouds dropped, and visibility for the largest and most difficult objective of the day turned perfect. Both Jason and I had been on the Tahoma Glacier before and knew our way around a bit, especially with the improved visibility.
Two days before the expedition, Paul Baugher (Owner MRAG and a pilot) had flown guide Mason Stafford and me around the mountain to take aerial photos of our proposed route. One of the difficulties that we anticipated and that the other parties had encountered was the Puyallup Cleaver. All of us on the flight agreed that from the air the Cleaver looked very do-able in at least 2 spots. The spot that looked the easiest, most straightforward, and most direct was at about 9,000'. This couloir had never be used for the circumnavigation, but we thought that with our attempt being early and the Spring having had many late snowfalls, that it would go. This was our target.
To hit our target on the far side of the Tahoma Glacier, we needed to hold the elevation that we had on the Tahoma Cleaver. Both Jason and I agreed that the easiest way to get the furthest into the glacier was to take the easy northeast trending ramp that rise into the middle of the immense Tahoma, one of the largest glaciers on the Mountain. We hoped that from there we could then pick our way back down to 9,000'. Coming off of the Tahoma Cleaver we lost several hundred feet zigzagging around crevasses before heading back up ramps to the central and severely broken core of the Tahoma Glacier. When we reached the convex and bulging heart of the glacier at about 9,000' things started to get ugly. The sun was out full strength now, and everything was very soft. Now, what looked smooth and easy was not smooth at all. It was hollow and punchy. "Hm...Let's try this....No....How about this?... No... This?... No... OK... let's see... SHIT... Where did that come from?" With no warning or visual cue I had popped through, my legs dangling in the void beneath me. Usually I have a pretty good idea when I am pushing it, but this was totally unexpected. After a long day, I began to wonder if "I am too tired to be doing this right now? Oh well, it doesn't matter because here I am, in it." OK, so I roll my self out and crawl back in my tracks. "OK, if this does that, then if I go around here then it should go and so it does, but man is this soft, OK, what surprise next? Uh, Oh this isn't looking good. OK, I can't go any further….Jason, take it from here!" What a relief that was to have another guide of Jason's caliber to take over the route finding. He reversed us from the dead-end, dropped lower in elevation, and finally found a way to our next camp near the Puyallup Cleaver.
Camp 4 looked good but the glacier was still very soft and we probed deeply into the mush for hidden crevasses before setting up our camp. It was a good time to not glacier travel any more, but there was still work to do. While Peter and Steve stayed back to help the team set up camp, Anne, Jason, and I roped up to go scout out routes and possibly fix lines up and over the Puyallup Cleaver. We walked up to the first ramp that we had scoped from the plane. The ramp looked great from afar, but as we approached, the deep moats became more apparent. Jason began to explore the moats, and when he started talking about using pitons to get out of the moat, Anne and I said "forget it, let's go check out the other options." Two options later, we had found that there was just no way. We would have to drop all the way down to 7400' on the Tahoma Glacier and cross Puyallup Cleaver just above Tokaloo Spire.
Day 5. Day 5 starts early at 5:00 AM to get down the glacier while it is cold and snow bridges are frozen over. Before leaving camp, Jason gives a talk that goes something like "There are two ways to walk, jerky, heavy and clunky or even and light. Walk even and light." Everyone understood him just fine and boy did we make good time! It was so firm that we barely left footprints. The glacier was still in the shade and we "floated" over stuff that would have sucked us in the afternoon before. We were off the tough stuff before the snow even softened a little. Now, "for the record", the easy way to handle the Tahoma Glacier in the first place would have been to come off of the South Tahoma above Glacier Island and then traverse low over to Tokaloo Spire at 7400'. But, then we would have missed all that incredible and educational terrain of the Tahoma Glacier at mid mountain height!
From Tokaloo Spire we ascended steep slopes to the ridge of Puyallup Cleaver and traversed onto the Puyallup Glacier at about 8000'. When we dropped off of the ridge Brad's knee started to hurt. At first we thought that it was just a small bodily rebellion against sustained steep slopes, but we soon realized that this was no passing cramp or tweak. It was here to stay and as the situation began to heat up, so did the mountain. We talked over our options. Pretty much every option included lots of walking. There was just no way around it, or was "around it" the only way? This was pretty much the worst place to get gimped up. Even if we bailed out down to St. Andrews Park to the west, it would still be at least two days hiking out from here, even with two good knees. Fortunately, Richard was doctor in Seattle and was able to give Brad's knee a good examination, after which we decided that from here the easiest option would be to stay high on the mountain, take the three day route "around", and complete the tour. We took loads from Brad to lighten his load and help relieve the stress on his knee, and continued up the Puyallup Glacier. The still clear air this day made us dream of the cold cloudy days we had earlier, and Brad's bum knee reminded us of our situation and how far away we were from help. The day continued to get hotter and hotter. The snow continued to get punchier and punchier. It was getting very slow, and the route to our next rest break was all up hill.
When we got to the next break at 8600' we perched ourselves at the very upper most reaches of the cleaver. From here we enjoyed spectacular views of Sunset Ridge, Sunset Amphitheater and St. Andrews Rock. The still air and warm temps just about put us to sleep. About a half an hour later we "jumped to," and picked our way down through the South Mowich Glacier. This was easy going compared to the previous days and our early morning. The glacier was littered with debris from a bunch of wet snow slides and icefalls. At about 7250' we ascended steep and ultra mushy slopes following both the old RMI and Boulton Gang routes. After post-holing up the slope (sometimes up to our hips) we topped out at about 7600'. Soaked from the mush we regrouped and took advantage of our new perspective to plan our route. We could see a very large open snow slope that had very recently avalanched, leaving a crown. Crossing this slope was necessary, and the area that had already avalanched would be the safest way to go…but we first had to get down to the crown face that marked the boundary between the snow that had slid and the snow that had not. Stepping only a few feet off of the rock ridge onto the snow we heard a soft but definite thud and swoosh as we kicked off a wet slab avalanche down onto the South Mowich below. While it was scary to think that there was still snow waiting to slide, it was actually the best possible occurrence, as it cleared the way down to the crown face that led across the slope. We picked our way down carefully to the slopes that had previously avalanched, and from there were able to traverse onto the Edmonds Glacier and up to a frozen lake at 8280', which became the site of Camp 5.
Day 6 started like the other days... very early. Up at 5:30, we wanted to get a good start so that we could ascend Ptarmigan ridge with firm conditions. Dropping onto the North Mowich Glacier we passed just above Needle Rock, a glacier nunatak at 7400'. From here we continued across the glacier to the base of Ptarmigan ridge at 7200'. The snow was perfect for cramponing and we made very good time up steep and very sustained slopes. The sun finally reached us when we were at about 7800', but the excellent conditions persisted until we hit the ridge at 8680'. From here we continued over to the Russell Glacier where it was very easy going, except for the hot still air. The only difficulty this day was descending onto the Carbon Glacier. Conditions were very soft, and the steep descent was unsure. We also encountered small route finding problems due to rock outcroppings. Once on the Glacier it was smooth sailing all of the way to Curtis Ridge. We camped on the east side of the ridge at 6800' so that we could get a good start on the Winthrop Glacier early the next morning.
Day 7 was uneventful and sweet. Crossing the Winthrop Glacier we climbed up and over St. Elmo's pass at 7400'. From the pass Anne recommended a glissade and we all took to it. It reminded me how important it is for every good trip to conclude with an excellent glissade. When we arrived at the bottom of Glacier Basin we all had big grins on our face as we shed our helmets, harnesses and the rest of our climbing gear. From here we had a satisfying stroll down through the forest to the White River Campground, and civilization. Larry was right on schedule with the van shuttle and soon we were loading up and off our feet for the first time in a week.
It was a great trip that we will never forget.
Adam Angel, IMG Guide