The Kautz isn’t your standard mountaineering route. Especially on a low snow year like this. Early season the Kautz can be a walk up with snow covering the steepest part of the route. Sooner or later, this snow melts out and reveals the toughest part of the climb, the Ice Chute. When the chute is fully melted out, multiple pitches of alpine ice climbing are exposed and the Kautz becomes more difficult and more exciting to climb.
Currently, the route is in great shape if accessed via Van Trump Park and makes for an adventurous outing. The Van Trump trail head (3,600′) is significantly lower than the normal entry point at Paradise (5,420′), but avoids the hassle of negotiating the Nisqually Glacier. It also provides great shade and some of the most beautiful scenery in Mount Rainier National Park. On the approach you walk past continuous patches of bright yellow salmon berries, huge firs draped with old man’s beard liken and 320′ high Comet Falls. And that’s before you even hit the Van Trump trail.
Once you’ve popped out of the woods, the view of Rainier is intense. As a climber, the Kautz Ice Chute immediately draws your attention. It’s not that the multiple waterfalls, colorful volcanic moraines or steep rocky cliffs aren’t interesting, it’s just tough not to stare when faced with a perfect frame of the crux of the climb.
Above treeline the beautiful trail tapers out and becomes scrambly and braided. Once you make it through this loose section of rock it’s possible to find snow climbing for the last 1,000′ or so to get to camp at the Upper Castle.
Our team chose to climb from the trail head to the Upper Castle (9,400′) in a single push on our first day. It was a long stretch, but the effort set us up for a great day of training before moving to our high camp near the Rock Step (at 11,300′ the Rock Step is a weakness in the ridge line that grants climbers access to the Ice Chute by lowering or rappelling off a fixed anchor of slung rocks).
After moving camp, RMI guide Jake Beren and I went up to the Ice Chute to inspect the conditions for the climb. The Ice Chute is fairly broken up right now with vertical and horizontal cracks dividing the climb into lanes. It is fairly deceptive from the bottom and one can easily choose a route that ends abruptly with a large crevasse. We were glad to have put the extra time in to inspect the route before getting our entire team committed to a dead end line. Jake and I arrived back at camp just in time to eat dinner with the team and tuck in for bed.
The amount of moderate technical climbing is substantial right now, so we opted for an early alpine start. The light of the moon helped us navigate the climb and made for a surreal climbing experience. Headlamps and moonlight bounced off the dust covered ice as our teams swung tools and kicked crampons. We were still in the ice chute when the sun rose.
Above the Chute, the Kautz glacier is heavily crevassed and the route to Wapowety Cleaver is circuitous. Once on the cleaver the route is straight forward and eventually connects to the current Disappointment Cleaver Route.
With many pitches of steep ice to descend, it’s essential to have a good plan for the descent. Lowering a lot of people down steep ice and rappelling behind them takes careful rope management and efficient flow. Having experience setting V threads (an ice anchor made by drilling a V shaped hole into the ice) is mandatory for getting down without leaving expensive gear behind or spending all day trying to set them.
When all was said and done, our team had been on the move for 15 hours straight. It was a hard climb of endurance, mental focus and technical climbing but everyone came out feeling satisfied and accomplished. The experience on this route is always different and exciting – I can’t wait for my next climb on this amazing route already!