While the ski season is winding down for most folks this year, I decided to cram in a few last steep turns before packing my skis away for the months ahead. Tioga has been skiing great, but it’s days were numbered and the weather was for once telling me to go north and get some big mountain volcano skiing. After triple checking the weather, it was on – warm and sunny Mt. Rainier here I come!
A few phone calls, some last minute packing and by 8pm [May 7th, 2013] my friend Tyler Jones was picking me up at the airport. We hatched a plan on the drive to Ashford on the south side of Rainier. The next morning we were headed to Paradise with visions of skiing Liberty Ridge.
Our first day was a leisurely 4,500’ skin to Camp Muir where we would stage for the summit and get a quick lap on the Cowlitz Headwall. The snow conditions were interesting…already a very summerlike texture on the south-facing snow. Penitentes protruded from the surface and it looked like it might be more dangerous to ski the Cowlitz than Lib ridge. The strong high altitude solar and warm temps melted the mini-penitentes and it skied really well!
After a relaxing evening at Muir we settled in for the night, prepped for a big day of climbing to tackle Liberty. We got rolling late for he summit, knowing the north faces would need time to soften. Our skin track from the previous day was perfect angle to glide early in the morning and we started up Gibraltar Ledges fast with our skis on our feet. The Gib Ledges route was spicier than the last time I climbed it last year, with thin snow coverage and water ice protruding in the most exposed section.
As we climbed past Gibraltar Chute, 2,000’ of perfect looking 40+ degree corn tempted us to ski it but we continued toward the top focused on our goal. Bobbing and weaving around crevasses we found our way to the top and were greeted by a beautiful, windless summit!
Going to Liberty Ridge from the south requires descending 800’ of hanous, wind-battered “snow” from Columbia Crest, traversing one mile and gaining 600’ to Liberty Cap. The grand scale, imposing seracs of the Tahoma Glacier and exposed feel had our blood pumping even before looking into the top of Liberty Ridge. But seeing the condition of the route was jaw dropping…it didn’t even look like good climbing. Amazingly steep and blue ice with patches of rime glued to it was not my idea of fun. We shifted our plan to the next big line on our list: The Mowich Face.
This is a huge, steep face with immense exposure. Blogs of blue rime ice peppered the face just enough to lure us in with the possibility of being skiable. It looked somewhat skiable and seemed like a good option until we got onto the face and quickly decided we would need to retreat with crampons.
Tyler, who has explored Rainier as much as anyone I know, threw out a final ski option: The Sickle. The Sickle is a large, west facing chute that descends the massive and jumbled Tahoma Glacier. The skiing was fast, thick corn and the aesthetics of the line are amazing. Navigating the Tahoma Glacier was intense, but with previewing the cracks from above we picked our way out without incident.
We contoured around the mountain and bivvied on the Success Cleaver, in perfect position to preview our line of choice for the next day: The Success Glacier Couloir. The weather stayed perfect and we enjoyed the last rays of sun that Washington state would get for the day on the volcanic ridge.
Timing the snow was a bit harder the next day due to the warm temps overnight. Right off the bat in the morning the snow was punchy with a thin breakable crust. Contouring to the base of the SGC we stashed our bivvy gear to lighten our loads, then fought up the breakable crust to gain elevation and firmer snow. The work paid off and soon the snow was firm and supportable and we were cramponing quickly.
Tired from hammering high altitude vertical feet from the previous couple days, climbing took some motivation. But how often do you find yourself in the Success Glacier Couloir with smooth, soon-to-be-perfect corn? We dispatched the couloir as quickly as we could, racing the intense warming from the sun. As we climbed a cloud cap threatened the top of the mountain and hastened our climb as well. At 13,000’ we were at the bottom of the lenticular cloud that was draped over the top of Rainier and the snow was ripe for the harvest.
We clicked into our skis and descended the steep, exposed line in amazing corn. The middle of the couloir was a bit messy, with sun-battered pinnacles and cups interrupting an otherwise flawless line. After 4,000’ feet of super G corn turns we gathered our bivvy kit and began the traverse home to Paradise.
Getting back was a tough way to end the trip- sticky slop skiing! We traversed to the Nisqually drainage and decided to get in the last couple grand by skiing to the Nisqually Bridge at 3,800’, sticky slop skiing be damned! The exit to the bridge is thinning quickly, so don’t plan on using that escape route without checking it out on your way up to Paradise.
(editor’s note: Tyler & Zeb are both guides are Rainier. If you’re ever interested in climbing with these guys anywhere in the world, they’ll guide it. Go here for more: Alpine Mountain Works)