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About Us > Adventures > Observation Rock

Observation Rock 9/7/02

Observation Rock is a pile of marble- to brick--sized volcanic rubble on the north side of Mt. Rainier, which, on a clear day, must have some pretty spectacular views. Unfortunately, the day we did this climb, we were rewarded for our efforts with intermittent periods of rain, snow and fog, obscuring the views but allowing the climb. Four of us headed out from the cars about 7:30 a.m. after a 5 a.m. driving start from Seattle. Rich Karstens and Rich Draves were the other two climbers in our party of four. The climb starts with a 300’ descent through woods, and then begins to climb until returning to about level with the parking lot elevation, meandering through more woods and crossing four streams until at the 2 mile marker the trail starts to switchback up through the trees toward Spray Park. We made what we felt was pretty good time, toting 35# packs at a 3-4 mph pace up to Spray Park. Still in the fog, we stopped to check the map and at the 6400’ elevation, veered off on a less-distinct climber’s trail well marked by a large cairn (the “dot” on the map).

As the fog swirled in and out around us, occasionally we could see landmarks like the unusual-shaped body of water we’d heard some refer to fondly as “Toilet Bowl Lake.” As we approached what we thought was the base of the climb, we at last got a glimpse of the icy slope up ahead. Before getting onto the snowfield below it, we stopped once more to put on crampons and then headed up to the rock band where we would rope up for the start of the ice climb.

While we were setting up screws as belay anchors, Doug found an “antique” ice screw someone had left behind years ago; Karstens later told us that was once the finest kind available (quite different from what’s in use now!). Rich Draves and Doug both led out together, on parallel lines (probably 3-4 parties could easily climb at the same time). Climbing up from the rock band, we made it in 3 pitches with a bit of simulclimbing on the final pitch, using a 60-meter rope. The first pitch is very straightforward, about 35-40 degrees, and can be simul-climbed to speed things up. I chose to use my ¾ steel shank leather boots, which are great for French technique as the ankles have more movement, but on the third pitch where the climbing approached 50 plus degrees, I was really wishing for stiffer boots as I imagined the skin ripping off my heels with each kick of the front points and each slide of my heel in the boot.

The second belay station where both teams set up anchors was at a fairly large, somewhat level boulder to the far right of the ice slope. Above that was the final pitch, steeper ice, and I can to this day still hear the bird-like “zinging” of the dinner plated ice as shards came raining down on us from our climbing partners directly above us. Unless climbers go off left and then traverse sharply right, there is no avoiding the ice fall they may send down when swinging their tools; I kept my helmeted head down and tried to stay as small and compact as humanly possible. It gets a little more interesting when you’re simul-climbing and have to look up occasionally…

We all topped out before 1 p.m. and I marveled at my racing adrenaline levels that had been sustained for the duration of the 3-pitch climb (ice >40 degrees is a relatively unfamiliar and new medium for me). As mentally taxed as I was, I was also delighted to have completed it successfully. As the others waltzed off to get a bite to eat, I paused to look up toward the cloudy, spitting sky and breathed an enormous sigh of relief. I did it!

The backside of Observation Rock was less pleasant than the ice slope – with every step forward on the marbles, I could feel myself slipping ¾ backwards. It is definitely my least favorite type of alpine surface to navigate. I even found myself wishing for more ice! It was slow going, and decidedly frustrating, but eventually we made it off the debris and back on the snow where we put on crampons once again for the descent. I took my time on the icy slope, as I knew that most accidents happen on the way down, especially after you’ve mentally exhausted yourself. We made it down without incident (except for navigating across heather in search of the climber’s trail) and arrived back at the cars between 5-5:30. Gotta love one-day alpine climbs in September that get you back home before dark!

Following are pictures in order taken.

Echo Rock (left) peers out from the clouds

Icy slope of Observation Rock, with rock band at base (right)

Echo Rock and the profile of Rainier in background

That's what we're going to climb?

"Toilet Bowl Lake" so named because of its shape when viewed from above

Doug at break (courtesy Rich Draves)

Rich Karstens stays warm (courtesy Rich Draves)

Rich Draves at break (courtesy Rich Draves collection)

Courtenay tries to stay warm (courtesy Rich Draves)

Draves, Doug and Karstens get a snack before the final approach

Courtenay and Doug on their anniversary climb

Foggy day -- believe it or not there are people in the middle of the picture!

Approaching the second belay station (rock to right; courtesy Rich Draves)

Doug at first belay mid-slope (courtesy Rich Draves)

Climbing sequence shot 1 of 5 (courtesy Rich Draves): Court approaches the lip

Sequence shot 2

Sequence shot 3; swing that tool and get a good stick!

Sequence shot 4; huff puff thank goodness, almost done!

Sequence shot 5; whew, wasn't sure I'd get up that! Couldn't see a thing!

Rubble slope that makes up Observation Rock.


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