By Andy Bond.
Anyone whose ﬂown into SeaTac Airport or been in Seattle or Tacoma on a sunny day has seen the massive slopes of Mount Rainier rise out of the rolling hills. At 14,411ʼ, itʼs the most glaciated mountain in the lower forty-eight. Although Rainier lacks the “technical” ice and rock routes that are desired by alpine climbers; for ski mountaineers Rainierʼs 35 to 60 degree slopes offer some of the steepest, most continuous fall line found in the lower U.S.
With its close proximity to a major city Rainier sees a lot of skiers especially with the Turns All Year crowd who swarm the Muir Snowﬁeld during the summer months. A route like the Furherʼs Finger has gotten notoriety from the book, North Americaʼs 50 classic ski descents and along with the Emmons route, most of the skier trafﬁc is concentrated to these areas. Itʼs a shame since the remote western slopes offer some of the best ski mountaineering anywhere. Iʼve often wondered why people arenʼt seeking out these steeper or more remote lines. Maybe its the weather, the remoteness of the terrain, a stigma that comes with a line like the Mowich Face, or the that there is little knowledge out there about the ski terrain on Rainier. Whatever the case, Iʼm hoping that more people will look into skiing some of these more remote routes and steeper lines as the skiing on Rainier truly is unparalleled for the lower 48.
This past winter Rainier was in a direct line of the wrath of La Nina. In the month of April the snow stake at Paradise (5440ʼ) had over 250” as a base. With an incredibly deep snow pack on Rainier I left Nelson British Columbia, where I spend my winters and headed to Ashford WA, to base out of for a month. My hope was that with a deep snowpack some ski lines that normally never come into shape could at least be looked at for a serious attempt at skiing them. My other objective was to try to ski some ﬁrst descents and really explore the ski potential of this mountain, especially on the remote west side. Iʼve probably spent too much time skiing in the Selkirks as skiing Rainier in corn conditions doesnʼt really interest me. Iʼve skied off the top of Rainier in powder last year while skiing a new line down the Sunset Amphitheater Headwall Couloir and in many regards that has shaped my focus to skiing Rainier in powder conditions. The tricky thing about skiing Rainier in mid winter conditions is that you need a good enough weather window to get up and down safely yet have to let the snowpack sit and settle out lowering the risk of avalanches on the upper mountain. That is easier said than done when in a thirty day period the weather only cooperated with six sunny days. With most of the park inaccessible with road closures or no roads at all, my strategy was to climb up to Camp Muir (10,040ʼ) in marginal conditions, spend the night and leave the next morning when the weather broke. Iʼm not a big fan of having to ski big lines without having climbed them but with such small weather windows, I was able to take advantage of knowing and being able to navigate the route up to camp muir in whiteout conditions. Allowing myself to be in position to take advantage of a one day weather window the following day.
On April 22nd, taking advantage of the ﬁrst weather window to present itself, I left Muir with fellow RMI Guides Seth Waterfall and Tyler Jones to look at the potential of skiing the South Tahoma Headwall. With conditions not looking great we decided to descend the Nisqually Ice Cliff off of Point Success.
Encountering ﬁrm but edgeable conditions we skied down the Ice Cliff enjoying the great exposure and length of the ski run; skiing all the way down to the Nisqually Bridge (3700ʼ) for almost an 11,000ʼ descent.
When the next weather window came I decided to head up to Point Success to look again into skiing the South Tahoma Headwall. This time I brought two 50m ropes for a series of two raps that I had anticipated from my previous scouting mission. The upper bit of the face was rime ice and quickly became obvious that I was going to need to rap. The ﬁrst rappel I was able to leave my skis on rappelling over 55 degree rime ice and rock. I then took my skis off to rap another 30m over a 25ʼ vertical rime ice step. Once done with the raps I skied some ﬁrm and slightly icy slopes until I got into the sun warmed soften powder to ski the rest of the Headwall. Itʼs amazing how big and long the Headwall actually is, dropping some 4500ʼ down to the South Tahoma Glacier. Having gotten off the steep stuff I dropped onto the Tahoma Glacier and enjoyed some mellow pow turns as I cruised to the toe of the glacier (6400ʼ), before starting my long 9 mile slog out the west side road ending my trip at an elevation of 2,000ʼ walking through some beautiful old growth forest. I was fortunate not to wait a long time while hitchhiking for a ride back to Ashford as I had learned from last years trips out the West Side Road, this isnʼt Canada, where everyone will pick up someone in need of a ride!
After a 5 week climbing and guiding trip to the Alaska Range I came back expecting ski conditions to be marginal on Rainier. However, summer never really came leaving Rainier full of snow and in prime condition to see some more ski descents. The stoke level for me was high after Eric Wehrly, Dan Helmstadter, and Pete Hirst made an incredible ﬁrst ski descent down Ptarmigan Ridge. Trip report here http://skisickness.com/post/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=252. Iʼm super excited that these guys were able to ski this line.
It motivated me to get back out there for one last big ski. With one day off between guiding trips I couldnʼt get anyone to go with me, so I left paradise at 4:30 am on July 2nd and headed to Muir. I stopped and had a cup of coffee at Muir with some friends than cruised up the Disappointment Cleaver Route hitting the top of Liberty Cap by 12:30 pm. Fearing a long way out I decided to start skiing right away heading down Sunset Ridge to the top of the Mowich Face. I had skied the Central Mowich Face two years earlier and was thinking about skiing Sunset Ridge all the way out. However, once I had crossed the upper Edmunds Headwall I was looking down a beautiful fall line that dropped off down to the Edmunds Glacier. Not knowing what was beneath me, or how the exit looked, I decided to drop in anyways, making some controlled turns on the ﬁrm and steep upper bit. Although Iʼd prefer to ski in the company of others and enjoy the camaraderie of partnership while skiing in the mountains. I do enjoy skiing by myself and having that internal dialogue with yourself. In some regards you learn a lot about yourself and the acceptance of risk your willing to take. Every turn you start talking to yourself, this isnʼt a place to fall, you got this, holy shit I hope this goes. The ﬁrst two thousand feet stayed pretty ﬁrm with smooth conditions. Every turn had to be in control, but as I started to get lower the snow softened and the mind could ease opening up my turns. However, with the warming came rockfall from above and the realization that the bergshrund was completely open. Another internal dialogue pursued and the option was pretty obvious. Sack up and huck out over the Shrund. Not going big enough could end in a disaster so I decided to make sure I cleared it.
With the steep descent over with, now the challenge of navigating across four glaciers solo with a boot pen knee deep set into my thoughts. I put my skins on and started traversing across the Edmunds Glacier, beneath the icefall, than traversing over to the South Mowich Glacier where I skied down to the Puyallup Glacier and ﬁnally beneath another icefall over to the Tahoma where I could exit to my usual long slog out the West Side Road. Already twelve hours into the day I was happy to have a three hour slog out with no crevasses and no worries just walking out through the trees.
The potential on Rainier really is limitless with the ability to ski off the summit in all four directions. The entire west side of the mountain is steep, remote and beautiful. Iʼm not sure if access will get any easier but maybe thatʼs what makes this mountain so special. Every trip up is different with the mountain constantly changing. The mountain can be so friendly and forgiving one day and the next can be a nightmare. But thatʼs what make skiing Rainier a true adventure every time.