Monumental 5-Storey High Icefall on Mount Rainier, WA Would’ve Been ‘an Unsurvivable Event’

CragBrains | ClimbingClimbing
mount rainer, icefall, Washington
Climbers surveying the scene of a ‘monumental’ icefall. Credit: Rajesh Balla

Recent icefall on Mount Rainier, WA has rattled seismographs, and perhaps the nerves of a few climbers, after collapses on the Ingraham Glacier beginning last Friday. Ice blocks and debris tumbled at least 1,000 vertical feet and across the popular Disappointment Cleaver climbing route, according to the Seattle Times.

“The large ice block tumbled in the middle of the night when no parties were on the route,” according to rangers’ blog post, cautioning climbers about remaining hazards. “…  Simply put, this would have been an unsurvivable event.”

Luke Reilly, a senior guide with International Mountain Guides, said more icefall came crashing down Tuesday afternoon:

“I’ve been guiding on Rainier for eight years, and this is the largest I’ve seen on that route,” he said.

Icefalls are fairly common among the mountain’s 25 glaciers, but many are not likely seen or heard. Seismograms show evidence of a large ice or rockfall event just before 10:40 pm, according to Steve Malone, a University of Washington Professor Emeritus in Seismology.

Mount Rainier, WA. image:

The recent falls covered a popular climbing route and may have missed a group of climbers by just hours when a guided climbing party discovered the icefall Saturday morning. Rajesh Balla, a client on an RMI Expeditions climb, said his group of more than 20 climbers left Camp Muir on Saturday morning at about 2:30 am. High winds on the mountain had forced them to start later than they had intended, he said. Guides stopped the group at the top of a rock feature called the Disappointment Cleaver about 5:30 am.

As the sun was just beginning to come up, the light revealed a massive field of debris, with head-high ice blocks covering the route ahead. A chunk of the glacier the size of a five-story apartment building had collapsed, a guide told Balla’s group. They would not be continuing the climb.

“This is monumental. This scares me,” the guide told Balla’s group, explaining that choosing to cross the debris field was risky because they would be moving more slowly over the rough terrain and with extended exposure if more blocks tumbled down. “The risk isn’t worth the reward, the risk is death. … that was a huge wall of snow passing by.”

mount rainier, icefall, Washington
The Ingraham Glacier near Disappointment Cleaver at about 11 am Sunday. A large icefall incident littered debris on a popular climbing route last Friday night. Credit: Calvin Sherstan

Balla said it was lucky no one was on the mountain during the icefall. Climbers often utilize alpine starts, sometimes beginning to ascend around midnight, to travel when snow conditions are favorable.

“If we were on the route the time the icefall happened, we would have been hit by huge boulders of ice,” he said. “They [guides] think it was a miracle it happened when no one was on the mountain. It could have happened anytime.”

The Disappointment Cleaver route is one of the most popular on Mount Rainier. About half of climbers who attempt the route reach the summit, according to a 2017 guide to the route published by climbing rangers. The route’s popularity peaks in July, according to the rangers’ analysis.

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