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    I landed at Seattle-Tacoma airport on Friday, fully loaded with gear and ready to head straight for Mt. Rainier. I took a bus from the airport down to Tacoma, where my partner would pick me up. Much to my surprise (and aggravation), when I asked the bus driver to open up the under-floor cargo space for my gear, she said “No, you have to bring it all on.” So there I was pushing my snowboard bag down the crowded aisle while bumping people with my backpack and duffel bags. Finally I found a bunch of seats at the back of the bus where other travelers had piled up their luggage, golf clubs, etc. We all thought this was the stupidest thing we’ve ever heard of. The driver never gave a reason for not opening the cargo bays.

    After a few hours of traffic, I was dropped off at a mall south of Tacoma and waited for my partner to arrive. The weather was gorgeous. Blue skies, sunny, green trees, no wind. It was not at all what I was told to expect of the Pacific Northwest. Finally my friend arrived and he said that this weather was “the exception”. As we drove out of the city and through rural pastures, the scenery reminded me more of the western coast of Michigan than anything I’ve seen in the mountain west. Suddenly, the clouds to the east broke open, and my friend said “there she is!” Mt. Rainier was peeking out of the clouds, and I had my first physical view of the summit.

    The mountain peeking out from the clouds

    All the way to the Park, all I could see was endless miles of trees. Huge masses of light and dark greens, all neatly grown in a row. My friend called these “new growth” forests. The forests were so much more lush than anything I’ve seen in Colorado. Driving into the park, it was still miles of trees with no view of the peak. Finally we rounded another bend, and I had a real quick view of it, before it disappeared. The image dominated my frame of view. It was like we were right next to the summit, but in reality we were over 10,000 feet below it.

    It was nearly dark when we arrived at ‘Paradise’, the main winter visitor area and trailhead. Being such a popular mountaineering site, there was a bit of paperwork and registering, with payment, that we accomplished in a small A-frame structure at the trailhead. Then we settled in an camped in the van. The air was getting very chilly. I thought about how we had traveled essentially from sea level to 5,400 feet in less than 100 miles by van…the only other time I’ve made that elevation change was from Chicago to Denver, across over 1,000 miles. Strange.

    The next morning, we woke, ate a hearty breakfast, and geared up for the initial climb to high camp. Our intended route to the summit was the ‘Fuhrer Finger’ route. According to the guidebook we had, there were two ways to get there, both via the Nisqually Glacier. The standard route was to cross the glacier down low, and climb up to the left of the glacier via a snowfield called ‘The Fan’. However, the guidebook mentioned an ‘early season variation’ directly up the Nisqually Glacier. Apparently the route is not good late in the summer because of crevasse navigation, but the snowcover was very deep this time of year, so we went for the direct route up the Glacier.

    Starting our adventure from Paradise

    As we skinned up from Paradise, we met another splitboarder, and a group of four mountaineers, all heading up the ridge toward Camp Muir. The splitboarder seemed obligated to give us a report “two feet of snow up high in the past few days; a lot of sun yesterday; watch yer-selves!” and with that he was on his way. We were the only group splitting off from the main route and dropping off from the high point above paradise down to the Nisqually Glacier. Once we dropped over that edge, we were alone in the wilderness.

    About to drop down off of the Paradise trails onto the glacier. The summit looks so close!

    We roped up at the base of the glacier and headed onward on skins. The skies were clear, and it was getting very hot. The average angle of the climb was about 20 to 25 degrees, and as we moved along at a good pace, we were both sweating profusely. Still, I felt really good about my conditioning and our pace, and possibly even making the summit the following day. First things were first, and we had to make it to a high camp. We encountered about a half dozen crevasses along the way, all of them had very good snow bridges which allowed us to cross without incident. It was the first time I had ever been on glaciated terrain, and staring into the mouth of the first crevasse (which we nicknamed ‘Jaws’) was very intimidating.

    The first of many crevasses. Snow bridges were excellent this time of year.

    Breaking for lunch, just below the final push to the Nisqually Ice Fall.

    By mid-afternoon, we had made it to the part where the Nisqually Glacier transitions into the Nisqually Ice Fall. From there, we would leave Nisqually and move left onto the Wilson Glacier towards the base of the Fuhrer finger. After about 3,000 feet of climbing (a typical Colorado summit!) we were still some 6,000 feet below the summit of Rainier. I suggested we continue climbing for at least another 1,000, to lessen the next day’s efforts. However, the terrain above us was much steeper than we had been on, and dominated by a rocky headwall that was shedding volcanic projectiles down the slope from the hot sun. The guidebook mentioned a camp across the Wilson Glacier at a high ridge labeled as ‘point 9,200’ which would have made the best camp. However, that would mean crossing the Wilson once to get to camp, and again the next morning to get to the couloir. Instead, we made camp on a high plateau at the base of the Nisqually Ice Fall, safely out of the way from falling rocks, and also out of the fall line of a potential avalanche or tumbling serac. (or so we thought, but for the rest of our time there, we couldn’t help but have a general uneasyness ever time we heard movement from above!)

    Here, we were supposed to go left around the big rock ‘cleaver’, and onto the snowcovered Wilson Glacier.

    It was early when we made camp, and I still had a really good feeling about making it at least above the Fuhrer Finger, if not the summit, the summit the next day. If we had moved 3,000 feet today, we could do another 3,000 the next day, and at least tackle the finger. We spent about an hour relaxing at our camp and checking out the jaw-dropping views of the Tatoosh Range. In our panoramic view, we could see the other Cascade volcanoes, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and far off in the distance, Mt. Hood. I was amazed at how these volcanoes just dominate the skyline above all the other surrounding mountains.

    The author posing in front of Mt. Adams (covered by clouds)

    Cool looking seracs

    Brian chilling out at camp.

    Camp robbers in the alpine zone? We must be in a National Park.

    We turned in early, even before sunset, for the plan was to sleep during the warmest part of the night, and wake up at midnight and make our push for the top. We agreed that 10:00 am would be our turnaround point, summit or not. When we woke, it was close to 2:00 am, and I got out of the tent to check out the snow conditions.

    Up until now, I had some good feelings about the trip. However, I had my first doubts when I walked around camp and found a very thin layer of crust, with unconsolidated snow underneath. This condition was very similar to my aborted attempt on James Peak a few weeks ago. It would appear that the “two feet of new snow” that the splitboarder talked of the previous day hadn’t had enough sun to consolidate.

    Now we had serious doubts, but since it was still way before dawn, we could either sit around in our tent for the next 8 hours, or at least make an attempt at climbing. We geared up with crampons and started up the slope. The 30-something degree slope would have been a breeze if we were able to toe-point on solid ice. However, we were breaking right through the crust and sinking almost to our knees with every step, moving just inches at a time, and burning a ton of energy. I kept hoping for better conditions as we got higher, but just like the James Peak experience, it only got worse. With heavier snows up high and less daytime warmth, we were pretty much discouraged from going any farther. We both knew our limits, and the energy drain that the conditions would do to our bodies, and decided to abort. It was way too early to ski, so we carefully downclimbed back to camp.

    Post-hole hell

    Sunrise over the Ice Fall. This place reminds me of Superman’s “Fortress of Solitude”. Haha.

    Now all we could do was sit an wait for the sun to come out and heat up the lower part of the mountain and provide us with some good corn snow to descend. The weather was clear, so we just waited and waited, enjoying the view. We saw a lot of rockfall across the opposing slope on the Wilson Glacier, but no signs of snow instability.

    Mt. Adams

    Mt. Hood

    Mt. Saint Helens

    Finally, when we thought we’d given the snow enough time to corn up, we made our descent. At first we tried skiing roped up to cross the crevasses. However, this proved to be too cumbersome, so we unroped and carefully made our way past all the crevasses by following the previous day’s tracks. Once we made it past the scary part of the glacier, we happened to find the best corn snow, which we rode down for another 3,000 feet, far below our starting point and arrived at the bridge where the National Park road crosses the creek. From there, we climbed up and hitched a ride back to the visitor’s center.

    Brian skiing down

    Whoah! Watch the hole!

    The author descending

    Back to civilization

    In retrospect, I first always view a trip as a success just for making it back without incident. On this trip, I was also completely satisfied with our accomplishments. We had performed a ‘DIY’ mission, on skies, up a very challenging mountaineer’s mountain. The snow conditions may have deterred us from going further, but I think the greater challenge is just the sheer size of the climb. 9000 feet is 9000 feet, and it was pretty much exactly how I expected it to be. I feel that all the conditioning I’ve done up in the Rockies really helped. I felt very strong during the trip. However, If I have future hopes on making it all the way to the summit, I think I’d like to go up via a standard route, in summer, mountaineer-style. Once I’ve made it to the top that way, then I can think about doing it with a splitboard.

    Final view from the road

    Kyle Miller

    She sure is a beauty . Nice work those glacier are a surreal experience.
    the Nisqually Icefall is a sketchy place in the afternoon sun.


    The 30-something degree slope would have been a breeze if we were able to toe-point on solid ice. However, we were breaking right through the crust and sinking almost to our knees with every step, moving just inches at a time, and burning a ton of energy.

    This might be a dumb question, but did you consider skinning with ski crampons? Or is that not appropriate in this case?

    Awesome TR and pics…that’s a giant mountain, and I’m always impressed when I see a genuine mountaineering attempt with a splitboard!


    Hey Adam, well done, nice attempt. One can only do what the mountains allow; it sounds like you made the right call. Thanks for the great pics and TR.


    @jbaysurfer wrote:

    The 30-something degree slope would have been a breeze if we were able to toe-point on solid ice. However, we were breaking right through the crust and sinking almost to our knees with every step, moving just inches at a time, and burning a ton of energy.

    This might be a dumb question, but did you consider skinning with ski crampons? Or is that not appropriate in this case?

    (jbaysurfer — ignore that PM I just sent you. I meant to hit the ‘quote’ button.)

    Ski crampons are always a big debate. I’ve had them for a year and never used them. We decided at the trailhead not to bring them up Rainier. True, they probably could have helped on the initial 30 degree slope, but how far can you push them? 40 degrees? I don’t know, but I think that I should get out and use them more to see what they are capable of.


    Cool pics Adam! There’s always next time to seal the deal.

    Jon Dahl

    I love your attitude, always a success when you come back to fight again. And welcome to our neck of the woods!

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