Last Ascent

Kaput on the Kautz

Rainier from Panorama Pt

The Kautz was the perfect objective to end my first season of mountaineering. Though neither as remarkable a wildnerness experience as Tahoma Glacier nor as technically challenging as Ptarmigan Ridge, its two ice pitches and steep snow still ward off the hordes that ascend Rainier’s most popular routes, the Emmons and Disappointment Cleaver.

Once an equally crazy partner was convinced to join me, planning commenced in earnest. Mid-August promised good weather and better climbing – TRs from the end of July indicated the Kautz chute was still snow-laden and didn’t have much in the way of ice, and those pitches were half my motivation for climbing the route. Prayers for good temps were met in a manner befitting Grecian tragedy: the car’s thermometer read 84º as we rolled into the Paradise parking lot.

We ambled into the CIC around nine for permits and last minute beta. The climbing ranger on duty had been in the 7/24 party and encouraged us to approach from Comet Falls rather than attempt navigating the crevassed mess of the lower Nisqually. Scenic compared to the traverse across the featureless lower slopes of the mountain, it would also add some 3,000’ of gain to our approach. How fun!

Upwards and Onwards

Departing from the trailhead circa 10:30, we made excellent time on the well-maintained trails to Van Trump Park. Dipping our buffs in the streams along the way granted a welcome, if temporary, respite from the heat. We stopped at the Comet Falls vista to enjoy the shade, adjust packs, and break into the first of many Clif Bars before resuming our breakneck ascent.

The unshaded horrors of the alpine zone

Our pace slowed slightly as we broke out of the trees and onto the climbers’ trail that beelines for the Wapowety Cleaver. A copse of trees at 6,700’ provided the last shade we’d find until well past Muir. Snow slogging ensued.

Slog

We encountered running water several hundred feet off route to climber’s right at 7,500’. As we stopped to lunch and refill our bottles, I noticed I’d set a personal record: we’d covered the first 3,900’ in just under three hours at what felt like a leisurely pace. Trading time at the climbing gym for conditioning hikes was worthwhile after all. Past the tarn, the snow began to steepen; we soon traded kicking steps into suncups for ever-lengthening traverses of the snowfield. Following a goat track along the slopes, crampons went on the base of the aptly named Turtle.

Wary of icefall at Camp Hazard and not keen on hiking farther, we chose to camp ~1,000’ feet below the rappel to the Kautz. A hint of bootpack traversing onto rock at 10,450’ clued us into a potential bivy spot. An unrewarding and sphincter-clenching scramble through the Rainier’s famed choss yielded a well-protected outcrop with phenomenal views of Hood, Adams, and St. Helens. We set up our shelters, devoured our dinners, and melted snow in preparation for the morn’s climb.

Bivy one

Fatigued from the lengthy approach and with a dearth of ice climbing experience – this would actually be my first time swinging a tool – we opted for a late start. We thought the extra rest and extra light would serve us well on the Kautz Chute. It was a regrettable decision.

Hero Ice

Astro sunrise

Our belated start gave ample time to toy with my camera and enjoy the glacial landscape. Though I prefer the views of the North Cascades to Rainier’s vistas, the flat landscape that grants the latter its prominence may be appreciated in its own right. By time I was satisfied with my shutter speed setting and Jon had overpowered his bivy bag’s stuff sack, it was nearly half past three.

Not wanting to expose our hands to the morning chill and fiddle with crampons, we stayed on rock for the jaunt to Camp Hazard. Apart from one bulge of snow below the Castle that called for step cutting, it was an uneventful start to the morning. We passed another party still asleep in their tent at 11,000’ and tip-toed by to reach the rappel down to the Kautz.

A fixed line was present but in poor condition, and we chose to descend on our own rope. Awaiting dawn’s first rays and in no rush to reach the glacier, we idled at the cliff’s edge for some time, enjoying the soothing sounds of distant icefall. By six we’d rapped down, traversed to the foot of the first pitch, and roped up. Jon gave me a brief ice climbing tutorial — pointy bits go forward, don’t drop anything, avoid falling dinner plates — and set off up the slope. We climbed two pitches of twenty-five to forty-five degree ice with some slightly steeper bulges (AI2 at most); the backsides of penitentes dotting the face provided ample rest for our calves. Realising we’d lost time sewing up the first pitch, we simulclimbed to the next belayed section.

Kautz chute

While it appeared steep and foreboding from afar, the second pitch was, if anything, easier than the first. The sun’s rays warmed the upper step, lending ice the texture of alpinists’ dreams: every swing produced an anchor-worthy placement. This was the reason we’d come to Rainier in August! The ice was so confidence inspiring that only a single screw was placed. I can scarcely imagine a better introduction to alpine ice, and eagerly anticipate being scared and disappointed in worse conditions on harder routes this winter. The headwall separating the top of the pitch from the upper Kautz Glacier was easily simulclimbed.

Down And Out On The Upper Kautz

As we angled north, toward Rainier’s summit crater, our fortune turned south. Roping up for glacier travel, Jon discovered that he’d left his sunglasses at camp. For lack of an alternative, my buff was repurposed as a Daredevil-esque eye covering; the irony of blinding as defense against blindness went unappreciated. With Jon unable to see, I would be solely responsible for setting the pace, kicking steps, and navigating the numerous crevasses on the way to Columbia Crest.

Leading out towards the Wapowety Cleaver, I began to worry that Jon’s vision may not be the only complication. He’d seemed a bit disoriented earlier that morning, but I’d chalked it up to caffeine deprivation. Now, he was asking to rest and catch his breath after only a few hundred feet of walking. I realise altitude, not a missed cuppa, is the cause of his distress. Stopping to rest didn’t seem to help, so we adopt a turtle’s pace to keep progressing. It took two hours to travel from the headwall to the tip of the cleaver, a mere 900’.

By half noon – five hours past sunrise – we had yet to locate a bridge to the Nisqually Glacier. Its gentle slopes lie on the far side of a a gaping crevasse, nearly one hundred feet across at the widest point. The best line we could identify, the dilapidated remains of a solid early season crossing, called for 15’ of downclimbing to a pillar, stemming to another detached chunk of ice, and climbing out again. Though it looks like it’d go, I was unconvinced Jon could execute a rescue should I fall. There was no alternative to the risky platforms in sight, and so I turned us back towards Point Success.

It was now 12:15, and 1,200’ of rapidly softening snow lay between us and the summit. In different circumstances, this is the point where I would have abandoned a summit attempt. As it was, I worried that Jon’s AMS symptoms would only worsen with time at elevation. Getting us down ASAP was the goal, and while bivying until nightfall firmed things up would be ideal, we didn’t have the luxury of waiting. When I brought up the subject of retreating down the chute, he said he was uncomfortable rappelling in his condition. With descent out of the picture, getting down meant going up. I set to plotting our course.

Upper kautz

From our vantage, there seemed a path that would traverse diagonally left, avoiding seracs and bridging the crevasse dividing the glacier, eventually breaking west towards the crater rim. It would be a steep, strenuous line, and there was risk of being stymied on the upper half of the glacier by an impassable crack invisible from below. Eager to keep moving, we took our chances.

V.iii.3085-86

For the first 500’ my spirits rose - had our luck returned? Despite steeper terrain, the pace increased as we wove through the penitentes, and the snow was reassuringly firm. The first of two bridge crossings further reinforced my confidence. Soft at the edges, it held up when probed and bore our weight without complaint. I even began to allow myself the hope of making it down in time to hitchhike back to Comet Falls. Misfortune resumed.

At the lip of what we hoped to be the final gaper on our ascent, we faced a dilemma: cross a lengthy bridge of questionable strength or a short bridge clearly in poor condition. Such luck 👵! With a visual assessment proving insufficient, I went to probe the bridges while Jon readied a belay. I watched his picket sink to the hilt with a single tap; not a good sign.

On belay?

Belay’s on!

I inched towards the lower of the two bridges. Two feet from the edge, my left leg punched through to the ankle. Turning uphill to extricate myself, the rest of my leg followed. This was not the crossing we were looking for. I headed back towards Jon and the other bridge. If this didn’t hold, we’d be stuck on the glacier, a scenario we neither packed for nor desired. Gingerly, I stepped towards the lip. It held. A bit farther and I managed a solid-feeling stick with my tool on the far side. I’m across.

Worried I may still be perched over the crevasse’s maw, I proceeded forward ‘til the ground seemed firmer and prepared to belay Jon. He crossed without incident, and again, for just a moment, our moods lightened. Half a rope length from the bridge, I found myself sitting au cheval, legs swinging freely beneath me. I was suspended by my pack and a crampon point that dug in as I fell. Jon leapt to self-arrest, but his tools were useless in the slush, ripping through without catching. Miraculously, I managed to sink the spike of my axe into a form patch on the far side and, with my best beached whale impression, crawl out.

I’d slipped into a narrow, ski track style crevasse running parallel to the slope. In direct light, it had been difficult to differentiate it from the surrounding snow. Standing to either side, our shadows rendered the small depression readily apparent, and we noticed a half dozen similar areas uphill. Falstaff’s famous line echoed in my head. Unwilling to take another fall, I motioned to retreat. Debate ensued.

It’s only a little farther, we can make it!

I don’t want to risk it. We can barely arrest, and it gets steeper from here.

The back and forth continued for several minutes before Jon relented, accepting it was too late in the day to safely continue. Return to the cleaver was nerve-wracking; shaken by my fall, I leapt to the far side of the bridge we’d so cautiously crossed on the way up. The rest of the shlep down the hillside is blessedly mundane. On rock again, we unroped and made camp.

Cowboy Camp

We estimated the snow would be sufficiently firm again by midnight and agree on a 1:00AM start. Planning done, we settled in for the long wait.

Bivy two

While Jon enjoyed a nap, I took inventory of food and fuel. Having planned to be back at Paradise by mid-afternoon, I packed lightly for summit day: a few ounces of nuts and three Clif Bars remained. Fortunately, fuel was plentiful – we’d enough for another two days of water without rationing.

Still too on edge to sleep, I passed the time by pacing, melting snow, and practicing a few infrequently-used knots. Jon woke after a few hours and joined me on the ridgeline. Excitedly, he begins pointing and waving towards the lower glacier. The party we’d passed early that morning was making their way towards us. Nearer to the cleaver, they shout to ask why’d we’d retreated. Describing the poor conditions, we entreat them to join us for the remainder of the climb. They graciously accept the invitation. We make a round of introductions and explain the details of our plan, as well as how we’d gotten stuck.

I woke around 10PM to stretch my legs and check the snow conditions. Perfectly firm! Thrilled, I melt a few more liters of water and enjoy a celebratory handful of nuts, then curl back up in my sleeping bag for some stargazing. With the stroke of midnight, I packed up and woke the rest of the team.

High Pressure Ridge

Retracing my steps up the Kautz Glacier for the third time, I was grateful for Brian and Dylan’s company and the extra safety of having them along. Though we were all tired and hungry, everyone was grateful to be moving after hours of idling on the Wapowety. We made good time to the foot of the bridge that had given me such a fright.

With the line taut, I prodded and probed the way across, moving more confidently with each step. Having enjoyed several hours of respite from the sun’s rays, it was once again frozen solid, and the rest of the team was able to follow across without hesitation or additional protection. Glad to have one obstacle behind us, we resumed zig-zagging across the slope, mindful of cracks like the one I’d fallen into. We found a handful through probing and likely crossed half a dozen smaller examples without noticing. Navigation will be complicated once those open up.

Around 13,800’, we abandon traversing and dig in with our front points, climbing the final three hundred feet towards Point Success with Teutonic determination. The slope steepened considerably, and unable to see over top, we prayed there was no crevasse to impede us. Pulling over the lip, I cried out in elation. The terrain was flat, the route to Columbia Crest direct, and our path free of obstacles.

We did it

We reached the summit around 3AM and had a small celebration; Dylan passed around a can of Rainier he’d carried for just this occasion. Though thrilled to have summitted, I was mentally and physically exhausted, freezing, and eager to get home. Too cold to remove the long johns wrapped around my neck, I even forewent a summit photo. Enjoying the views of city lights on the horizon for a few moments longer, we turn towards the summit crater and steel ourselves for the mind-numbing boredom of descent.

Disappointment Indeed

The Disappointment Cleaver lived up to its name. A week after the trip, I’m still shocked this is Rainier’s most popular route. Looking down on the crater from Columbia Crest, the path could not have been more clear – bootpack gouged the center, with handrails three feet high to either side. I’ve seen portions of Seattle sidewalk in worse condition!

Operating on autopilot, we tramped across the crater. The route is heavily wanded, and every crevasse we come to is bridged by a ladder or handline. We saw about forty people on the way down, but avoided a logjam in all but one instance.

Views as the sun rose were breathtaking, and I regret having ignored the urge to snap a few photos. The seracs and crevasses of the Ingraham and Emmons are otherworldly in the proper light, particularly against the backdrop of the Tatoosh range. Little Tahoma was astounding, and I look forward to an attempt next year.

Little t

Once at Muir, we informed the rangers that both overdue Kautz parties were safe and accounted for before collapsing on the rocks for a rest. After an hour’s recuperation, we exchanged contact info and split the teams for the final leg to Paradise. Though Brian and Dylan blitzed down the Muir snowfield and were soon out of sight, they were rerouted by construction near Paradise, and we ended up meeting again at the CIC.

After turning in permits, we made a few short calls to let our families know we were safe, then secured transit to Comet Falls. I’d never been so happy to see my car or remove my mountaineering boots.

Reflecting on our relative fortune and what might’ve happened had there been less of it, we drove back to Seattle in silence.

Aftermath

During the climb and a few days after, I was convinced it would be coldly remembered as a Type III experience. Friends who inquired about the trip were brushed off or given a curt description of what went wrong. It was painful, exhausting, and left me considering mortality more often than I’d have liked.

In spite of that, it was also validation of my ability to lead a party, assess and respond to risk vis-à-vis my comfort level, accommodate an incapacitated partner, and make the best of a sufferfest. In many regards, from the weather we enjoyed to my pack catching the crevasse lip, we were simply lucky. In other aspects, shrewd judgment and proper training stopped a bad situation turning into an epic.

Though it’s not an experience I’d repeat, I appreciate having had it, and expect a few more Type II tales from Rainier before the 2017 season is through. Ptarmigan Ridge seems fun…


n.b. Have feedback? I’m eager to hear it.