With the summer Cascades climbing season fast approaching, I figured Id share this trip report, in case anyone was interested. I know I can never read enough of these when Im preparing for a trip. Names have been abbreviated to protect the innocent . . .
MT. RAINIER, FUHRER FINGER
I arrived in Seattle early on Sunday, July 7, 2002. The plan was to approach the Fuhrer Finger route on Mt. Rainier Monday, summit early (i.e., alpine start) Tuesday morning, bivy in the summit crater that evening, descend the Disappointment Cleaver route Wednesday morning, and return to Seattle by mid-afternoon on Wednesday. My buddy S and I departed Seattle Monday morning in the rain. All in all, the day looked pretty gloomy, and I was not looking forward to a wet approach to high camp near the base of the Fuhrer Finger, at around 9,400 feet. Happily, once we arrived in Mt. Rainier National Park, the local NPS radio station (1610 AM) assured us that weather conditions would change for the better by late afternoon. Although I was aware that it had been an above-average snow year between 5,000 and 8,000 feet on Mt. Rainier, I was unaware of just how much snow had fallen until the radio station also informed us that on this date last year, there was a mere one inch of snow at Paradise Inn, while this year, there was still 52 inches on the ground!
We met up with everyone -- siblings A and B; R; M; and my and S's mutual friend, LJ, and his co-worker, D -- at the Paradise Inn, where they had all stayed the previous evening. After gear checks that pared down the less experienced climbers packs considerably (including jettisoning Ms makeup bag - no kidding), we headed for high camp. There wasnt much in the way of a trail, just footprints in the snow, going off in all directions, many from day-tripping tourists. Fortunately, S was familiar with the approach, and guided us to the Lower Nisqually glacier, where we crossed over and headed into a fairly narrow couloir that brought us to a ridge above the Wilson Glacier. The rain had graciously stopped, though thankfully the clouds remained to block the sun and keep temperatures reasonably cool. Progress was painfully slow, because R and M were having difficulties; R was noticeably out of shape and M was alarmingly uncoordinated. What should have been a relatively easy 4-hour approach ground into 8 hours, and because nightfall was approaching, we were forced to camp much lower than our planned campsite, settling for a cozy spot at somewhere between 8,400 and 8,700 feet, depending on whose altimeter you believed. The upshot of this, of course, was that our summit day was going to be accordingly longer, which under normal circumstances is bad enough, but in this case, because we were carrying over (the Fuhrer Finger not being the kind of route you want to descend once conditions warm up, because of the high rockfall and icefall danger (and its pretty damn steep)) it was doubly bad. The route report at the Paradise Ranger station indicated that a wet slab avalanche had occurred on the Finger the day before. While making camp, I couldnt help but ponder the daunting prospect of a 5,700- to 6,000-foot summit day with full packs.
The view from camp was one of the finest I've witnessed in the mountains. It was better than many summit views, really. Neatly arranged horizontally, from left to right, and in bold relief because of the perfect visibility conditions, were Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. St. Helens, all fronted by the nearby Tatoosh Range. Sunset brought the usual array of stunning colors and alpenglow on the mountain faces, and cast a long shadow of Mt. Rainier across the eastern horizon, accompanied by a phenomenon which Id call a corona effect, for lack of a proper term, that bent a halo of light from the actual mountain top to the corresponding tip of its long shadow. We also had a great look at the Fuhrer Finger from camp. Spirits were accordingly high among the group. Even for R and M, who had acknowledged their unpreparedness and had agreed to return to Paradise the next morning, this panoramic bivy provided a certain measure of consolation. Because S agreed to accompany them back to the Paradise trail (due to their inexperience), our summit bid would be set back a day. This effectively sabotaged our planned summit bivy, because of some peoples' flight departures, but it afforded us a day of rest. Still, in all, we expected that we could complete the ascent in 6-8 hours, and be off the mountain via the D.C. route by late afternoon on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the sun shone brilliantly -- and relentlessly -- all day. Temperatures at camp were easily 70 degrees or better, and there was not a spot of shade to be found for most of the day. Following breakfast, we lowered down onto the Wilson Glacier to toprope ice-climb in a huge crevasse. Later that afternoon, S helped R and M to a safe spot on the far side of the Nisqually, and returned to base camp at around 7 p.m. We ate a large meal and turned in for a little rest before our 11:00 p.m. wake-up call and midnight departure.
Either the alarm didn't go off, or it wasn't heard, because when someone finally woke, it was past 1:00 a.m. We scurried to break camp, foregoing breakfast or hot drinks for lack of time, and began our ascent at around 1:45 a.m. Something was amiss, though, and it was obvious -- the temperatures were downright tropical. A warm breeze dusted the flanks of the great mountain, and I regretted having worn longjohns beneath my lightweight Schoeller pants. I wore only the lightest long sleeve capilene shirt, a shell or other top being entirely too warm. It was eerie, to tell the truth, and I inwardly questioned the wisdom of setting out on a route known for rock and icefall, and avalanches, in these conditions. Still, it was a seductive eeriness. Here, in this normally dark, cold, hostile environment, Mother Nature breathed her hot breath down upon us, and the place seemed much less forlorn, benign even (in later conversations with other climbers, explanations of "temperature inversions" and a "Pineapple Express," a rare weather phenomenon denoting the Hawaiian islands origin of the tropical breezes that caressed the mountain's slopes, were offered).
The first two hours passed without incident. We crossed a massive glacier guarding the base of the Finger, by way of a narrow, 25-35 foot long snow bridge. Once on the Finger proper, a narrow couloir of relentlessly steep, 45-degree terrain, we stairmastered our way, step by careful step, in reasonably good steps kicked by previous parties, up toward the summit, thousands of vertical feet above. The slope was steep, and I buried my axe to the hilt with each step and grasped at anything I could -- a step, a hole made by previous parties' ice axes -- with my free hand. Ice particles whizzed by from S's rope team above. After our second break, S's rope team set out once again on the steep slopes of the Finger. They hadn't gone 30 feet when a smallish rock came flying by. Ten feet further on, S recalls that he heard an unmistakably terrible sound, like the whine of an accelerating aircraft engine, and he looked up in horror to see a luggage-sized rock, easily in the hundreds of pounds, rocketing down toward him. He screamed "ROCK!" at the top of his lungs, and my rope team watched as the missile shot past them on the right side by a mere 15 feet. We knew we had to move fast to avoid being killed or maimed by rockfall. Unfortunately, the gully loomed for another 1200 vertical feet above, with little shelter or quarter from the malevolent rain of stones and ice above. Moving out on to the slope, my rope team struggled to maintain a brisk pace, encumbered by heavy packs and rapidly fatigued by thinning air. Ahead of us, D kept falling off the pace, nearly pulling A off her stance, and slowing S's rope considerably.
Several hundred vertical feet later, we veered off course at an opening in the rock buttresses that hemmed us in, and found a flat place at the lower edge of the largest crevasse I've seen to date. This crevasse was framed by a rock wall, visible at the far side, over which the glacier, towering some 60-80 feet above it, broke into a jumbled mess and deposited itself in the bottom of the frozen pit, some 200 feet below. Rocks occasionally fell from above, the slower moving ones dropping harmlessly into the crevasse, the faster ones bridging the gap and continuing unabated down the slope, past our position. D was physically on the verge of complete exhaustion and imminent collapse, and reported that his legs felt "like jelly" and would barely move. Now, D was supposed to be LJs responsibility, as he invited him along and had specifically agreed to take responsibility for him should he be unable to continue, prior to the trip. But at this point, LJ, a fairly experienced mountaineer, when informed by S that D was creating a hazardous situation, replied, "So what are you telling me for?" S replied, "Because he's your buddy." S proposed cutting one rope and making three teams, me and B on one rope, S and A on another, and LJ and D on the third. LJ astoundingly suggested that S, being the most experienced, should keep D on his rope, and stated that he would be "uncomfortable" being roped up with D, his friend, alone. LJ, up until now the anchor on my rope team, flat-out conceded that he didn't think he could self-arrest the two of them! Thus did LJ absolve himself of all responsibility for the welfare of his friend, whom the rest of us had only met the day before, and placed the burden of his well-being, and the attendant danger to his ropemates, on S and the rest of us. And it didn't encourage me one bit that I now had a 250-lb. guy who admittedly had no confidence in his ability to self-arrest, on the end of my rope.
S unroped and reconnoitered for an easier line of travel to the right of the crevasse -- anything that looked less hazardous than what lay before us on the route proper -- a descending traverse to the left side of the crevasse, then a crossing over a gap up onto the snow slope above the crevasse, which was lined by rock on the left, and dropped off precipitously on the right into the gaping maw. The angle of travel on the snow was not too bad, maybe 35 degrees, but the slope angled off to the right at better than 45 degrees toward the monster crevasse. One slip above that thing, and it was adios rope team -- there was little chance of self-arrest on the soft snow at that angle. S took on most of the weight of Ds pack. He then set a picket just before the gap that bridged the crevasse, itself not too daunting an obstacle, though rocks did occasionally skirt past us as we crossed. It was when we got another 50 or so feet above this point that we cleared any of the obstructions that may have prevented us from dropping into the crevasse, and began to crawl our way up the naked slope above the seemingly bottomless pit below. More than once I yelled back to caution that a slip on this terrain would result in sure death for the lot of us. The exposure was intense. The snow was a pliable mush of mashed potatoes that threatened to give way under the weight of every step, and offered little in the way of resistance each time I planted my ice axe hard with my left hand. Eventually, we reached a rock protrusion, around which we hoped relative safety would lie. The entire slope, now under the melting gaze of the sun, in already freakishly warm conditions, was a point release avalanche just waiting to happen. Just such an avalanche had occurred two days prior, we already knew, from the Ranger's report previously mentioned. At the rock protrusion, we grasped at the chossy rock, and groped our way past. Around the corner, S slung a flake of rock that offered marginal protection at best, and our feet penetrated the surface to the hard rock below as we scrambled up a short section of steep steps that led to safer ground. I swear you could hear the sound of our asses collectively unclench when we reached that point. The danger was not completely over, however, as more rock bands loomed above us. Only after another hour or so of climbing did we clear the rockfall hazards. Now, however, the sun and warm temperatures presented new difficulties - we still had crevasses and snow bridges to cross. Our pace was snail-like. Even S, normally a beast in the mountains, struggled beneath the significant weight of his augmented load, forcing him to stop and take occasional standing rests before continuing on. We came upon one crevasse with a sunken snow bridge that, when probed with an ice axe, revealed the crevasse bottom a hundred feet below. The bridge was at least 15 feet across and inspired little confidence in its ability to hold even the slightest weight. No other way appeared to circumvent this crevasse. S called on me to provide him a hip belay as he made the attempted crossing. I mumbled a prayer as he placed his weight on the bridge. Miraculously, it held, not just for S, but for each successive person as we crossed. Several more crevasses were negotiated, and we skirted around an enormous, unstable looking ice block, and at last, we were on the summit ice cap. We took a long 20-30 minute break here to gather enough energy for the last push to the summit. Long ago, the realization that descending on this day was not an option had sunk in, as the Disappointment Cleaver is no place to be in the heat of the day, so a forced summit bivy awaited us. We were practically falling asleep where we sat, out of the wind and in the warm radiance of the sun. Moving on took some willpower.
We arrived at the summit in gale force winds at approximately 2:30 p.m, more than TWELVE HOURS after we had set out from high camp. The thought of taking summit pictures was vastly unappealing, but S's rationale was that we wouldnt want to have to return the next morning to do it, so pictures were quickly taken, and we repaired into the summit crater, where the winds, to my disappointment, were only slightly less fierce. All I cared to do was sleep, and before any of us could do that, we had to set up our tents in the harsh winds. Extreme care was taken not to let any part of the tent fly away, and an hour later, we settled in for well-deserved naps. We awoke later that afternoon to melt water, re-hydrate and eat some oatmeal, which was the only food we had left, save a few snacks. Bivying on the summit was an unreal experience. We arrived at the summit alone, and alone is how we spent the night on top of that cold mountain. The sky was lucidly clear in the crystalline air at dusk, but we didn't linger outside the tents for very long after sunset, as the temperatures dropped rapidly. I didn't sleep much that night, because of a pounding headache, which I ascribed to exhaustion and overexposure to the sun the previous day, but which in fact was caused by breathing in carbon dioxide throughout the night, as we hadn't allowed for much cross-ventilation in our desire to stem the flow of frigid air rushing into the tent from outside. I discovered this only after I got up, at around 5 a.m., and milled about outside the tent after relieving myself. Ten minutes in the fresh air, and my headache was gone. So I walked about the crater a while, then made my way up to the summit register to record the previous days summit bid. By and by, groups of RMI summiters made their way into the crater from the D.C. route, and as I passed them on my way to the tent, I shared a few words and congratulations. I wondered what they thought when they saw our two little tents pitched in the crater. I imagine that as first-timers, they were at least slightly surprised. The summit bivy was an amazing experience, and I'm reasonably certain, a relatively rare one percentage-wise, considering the number of people who step foot on the summit each year.
The descent was largely uneventful, though it was interesting to experience the D.C. route firsthand. Despite its reputation as a cow path, it is still a pretty serious undertaking, with lots of exposure and objective hazards, including numerous crevasses, rockfall through the Disappointment Cleaver, and an icefall section that had an enormous debris field from a recent avalanche that left behind Volkswagen-sized blocks of ice in the climbers' path. Descending the Muir Snowfield sucked as bad as anything ever sucked. It went on forever, and the sun beat on us mercilessly the entire time.
Back at the Paradise Inn, I staggered into the snack bar area and ordered a super chili dog with chips and an iced tea. I can't readily recall a tastier meal, and as non-climbing tourists looked on in hushed silence, I don't believe I took a single breath as I swallowed the entire thing down in less than half a minute.
In hindsight, we shouldnt have set out in such unfavorable conditions, and perhaps we should have balked at allowing D along. But these things happen, and one learns from experience. The Finger is a great route, and bivying on the summit ranks as one of my most memorable mountain experiences.