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About Us > Adventures > Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier - Emmons Glacier Route, 7/19-20/03

Teams on the Emmons Route

In mid-June, four of us decided we’d like to try a July ascent of Mt. Rainier via the Kautz Glacier, an intermediate mountaineering route on the south side or the mountain that involves a few pitches of ice climbing on slopes up to 40-50 degrees. However, by the time the climb date rolled around, Seattle was having a heat wave, with temperatures in the 90’s, and the freezing level at Rainier rose to 15,000 feet. Camp Hazard is notorious for its icefall; we decided to play it safe and change route at the last minute to the less hazardous Emmons Glacier via Camp Schurman.

We left Seattle at 5 a.m. and met our climbing partners, Mike and Ellen, on the northeast side of the mountain at the White River ranger station just as it opened at 7 a.m. With permit in hand (reserved by FAX several weeks earlier) we drove to the White River Campground and squeezed into a parking spot along the exit road. We left the cars around 8:15 a.m. The first 3 miles to Glacier Basin are dry and dusty, crossing numerous small streams that carry icy water to the White River on our left as we headed toward the mountain. Once we reached the meadows, we paused for our first snack break and slapped at several mosquitoes and biting flies that always seem to gravitate towards me.

We continued along the sulfur-colored moraine and reached a good filter spot at 10:15 right before stepping onto Inter Glacier’s lower snowfield. We decided to wait to rope up until we reached the areas of open crevasses about two thirds of the way up the slope. Once we saw wands placed in an “x” to mark an open crevasse, we stopped to tie in. I thought back to 1991, the very first time I did this route up Rainier, and recalled how incredibly steep it had felt way back then; now it just felt like a long gentle staircase. We reached the top of the Inter Glacier by 12:15 and found a good lunch spot on the ridge at Camp Curtis. The female ranger who had checked us in that morning made her way up to Camp Schurman, and we soon followed, crossing low onto the Emmons where the crevasses were opening up. We spotted some of the SMR (Seattle Mountain Rescue) folks practicing ice climbing in the large crevasse directly below Camp.

At 2:30 p.m., 6 hours and 15 minutes after leaving the cars, we strolled into camp and found several level tent platforms for sleeping. Two hours later, we had finished filtering water for the next morning, and ate a hot dinner of soup, mashed potatoes and tuna, and a few Reese’s peanut butter cups for dessert. We noticed late in the afternoon a group of what looked like 9 people still far too high up on the mountainside to be considered safe; one of the rangers pointed out that sometimes it takes teams 15 hours round trip from camp to camp, and it is not that unusual to see teams returning at 5, 6 even 7 p.m. Yet it was 8:30 p.m. and they still were at least an hour from camp.

I always have a difficult time sleeping the night before a big climb, perhaps because I am on hard snow or dirt, because I’m so excited about the next day’s adventure, or maybe I’m worried I’ll miss my alarm as I tend to use ear plugs to cut the sounds around me. This time was no different. The weather forecast was for blue skies for the next 5 days, and winds dying down at the summit to 15-20 mph. We had a small, strong team, good forecast, and I was convinced this would be my fifth time to the top via the Emmons Glacier. When I got up to use the solar toilet, part of me wanted to join the very first rope team heading up about 10 p.m., but I settled for a few pictures of the twilight and gaping crevasses, and headed back to my tent for a few more hours of sleep.

At 12:10, after perhaps 3 total hours of sleep, Doug nudged me awake and I instantly started getting dressed for the climb. The intermittent wind gusts were quite strong, but I was hopeful that they’d die down or at least become more tolerable as we started to move. I had one boot on and was reaching for the second when I let out a loud, shocked YELP! “There’s a fricking MOUSE in my boot!” I couldn’t help it; I was probably just as shocked as the rodent. It scurried out of the boot and disappeared from the vestibule, leaving me gasping for air and shuddering to think what it might have left behind. Fortunately, it hadn’t eaten any boot material to make a nest, and when I dumped the boot nothing else came out, so I stuck my foot into the boot and was relieved when it went in without hitting any obstructions. The moral of the story: even on snow, KEEP YOUR FOOD PROTECTED and BOOTS COVERED, you never know what lurks in the darkness looking for a warm nest or an extra meal!!

We left camp at 1:15 a.m. and made good steady progress upwards, past Emmons Flats, where we navigated through a small maze of open crevasses, and on up to about 11,000 feet when we got stuck behind several slower parties who would not step aside. We finally managed to pass them (sending our heart rates soaring above the mid-150’s as we did so) and then it seemed we would be home free – until we caught up to a group of three more rope teams. Sigh. On the upper reaches of high mountains, sometimes there are a few places (snow bridges, narrow ledges, steep areas, etc.) where only one climber can proceed at a time. Bottlenecks, if you will. Sort of like the Hillary Step on Everest, perhaps the most well-known bottleneck anywhere on the face of the earth. It’s one thing to have an up trail and a down trail where climbers and return parties can move at the same time; but when teams retreat (from sickness, weather, or other reasons) and encounter ascending climbers at these bottlenecks, it can really be a test of patience. We still managed to average roughly 1,000’ feet of gain per hour despite the slow climbers in front of us. When they finally pulled off at a bergschrund for a break, we took the opportunity to pass and once more set our own pace.

We set out for the long traverse to the saddle between Liberty Cap and Columbia Crest, at about 12,800 feet. This was apparently where the paths from the Disappointment Cleaver and the Emmons routes merge. It’s the longest traverse I’ve seen in the 5 times I’ve been up this route. As soon as we left the relative shelter of the bergschrund, the winds picked up in earnest. Immediately after we crossed the crevasse and turned 180 degrees to start the final push for the summit, we were slammed sideways by 40 mph gale winds that left us pulling hoods and balaclavas down over eyes and noses. We had a team huddle to discuss whether to continue and we all agreed the wind itself wasn’t enough to turn us around. However, as soon as we started up the slope, still able to see the rocky outcrop of the summit, and excited that we were so close, a lenticular started to form around us, and visibility dropped significantly. Mike said his face was getting really cold; I was having trouble seeing the faint crampon path up to the last of the kicked steps; the clouds continued to close in around us, and the broken wand in the distance disappeared.

When Doug pulled hard on the rope to get me to stop and look back, he pointed to the clouds, and made a downward gesture with his hand. I interpreted it to mean that the path was over to the right, and Mike would lead up along the track. However, when Mike kept heading for the distant crevasse crossing, I realized that it must have been a signal that we were not going to attempt the summit. Most of the other teams following us up turned around not long after we did. In retrospect, had I voiced my confusion in another group huddle and gotten clarity as to why exactly we were turning around, I think we probably would have made it. However, a recent lost-climbers incident had occurred at the very same spot not too long ago in white-out conditions, so with that memory still fresh in our minds, we decided not to take any unnecessary chances. A climbing friend once pointed out: “if you knew you had another opportunity to return to do the climb within the next month, would you continue under the given conditions?” The mountain is in my back yard; I’ll always have plenty of opportunities to climb it, safely. We made the right choice, though it is always tough to turn around when you’re so close. Perhaps September.

The winds got progressively worse over the course of the day with strong wailing gusts all the way down to and at Camp Schurman. We made a speedy descent from our high point, reaching Camp Schurman in 2.5 hours, and then after taking time to rest, eat, and repack, we headed down the Inter Glacier to reach the cars in three hours by 2:30 p.m. My new climbing motto has become, “If you learn something, get everyone down safely, have great views, a wonderful glissade, and enjoy yourselves, then it’s an immensely successful adventure.” Ed Viesturs has been overheard saying (about whether or not Mallory and Irvine reached the top of Everest), “It doesn’t count as a summit unless you can also get yourself down safely.” Amen to that!

Following are pictures in order taken.

Rainier from White River trail, the Emmons Glacier route visible.

Bear bags hung at Glacier Basin, an hour in from the cars (3 miles.)

Meadows at Glacier Basin, 9:30 a.m.

Ellen on the moraine heading up to Inter Glacier.

Doug and Mike continue up the moraine. Very little snow remains even mid-July.

The Inter Glacier.

Marmot; there were at least 4-5 playing tag while we filtered water at the stream.

Doug at the stream after filtering water

Mike and Ellen take a brief snack break

Getting into harnesses at the base of the Inter Glacier snowfield

Large crevasse 2/3 up the Inter Glacier where we chose to rope up

Heading up the final part of the Inter Glacier roped up

Little Tahoma and the broken lower Emmons Glacier

Mike and Doug grabbing lunch at one of Camp Curtis' sites, Emmons Glacier route behind them below a lenticular cloud

Crevasse below Camp Schurman (seen right) on the lower Emmons

Seattle Mountain Rescue practices ice climbing in large crevasse just below Camp Schurman.

Female ranger at the Schurman ranger hut.

Tents at Camp Schurman.

Shadows grow long in late afternoon at Camp Schurman.

Tahoma and open crevasses, shot at 8 p.m.

High on the upper reaches of the mountain, Russell Ridge.

Sunrise at 12,000 feet.

Steep corner headed up the deep trough of the Emmons Glacier.

Sunrise turns ice pink

One of the lines of climbers we got stuck behind, headed for the saddle


Several climbers say "That's enough" and bivy to wait for their climbing partners.

High winds kick up beyond the bergschrund.

The crevasse crossing at the saddle. Winds were 40 mph, visibility poor at times.

Our summit shot at 13,800' - as far as we dared to go.

Sun cun cups or penitentes through which the climbing path winds up the Emmons.

One last break far above Camp Schurman. From turn around at 7 a.m. at 13,800' it took only 2 hours to get back to camp.

High winds continue all afternoon, with clouds whipping around the summit


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