Monday, August 3, 2009

The Rainier Quest - Day 6, Part 1: Glissading the Inter Glacier

June 22, 2009

The night was kinda long, as I first awoke when the new batch of summit bidders roused themselves and started their prep for the day. The wind also had picked up during the night, blowing for a while, then dying off, then blowing again. Could be a blustery day on the summit. As the night wore on, every couple hours or less I would wake again, peer out the tent window to see stars or poke my head out the door to see the progress of the people working their way up the Corridors. The night was clear, chilly. I napped between head-pokings-out. The summit teams for today were making progress, but it was very slow compared to even ours from yesterday. At sunrise they were over 1000' lower than where we were at the same time. As the day brightened, I counted no less than 15 people in one cluster going up, another four several hundred feet behind them, and three coming down. Photos right show the mountain and the people circled, and a close up (3x zoom) of the climbers still in the Lower Corridor. It would be a solid hour before the large group even got to the lower part of the Upper Corridor. The same time they reached the bottom of the Upper Corridor, we had been working our way across the Catwalk the day before. I would periodically watch them for the next few hours while we were in camp, checking on their progress. I could only imagine the snow conditions they would find on their way down.

The early morning sun cast an orange glow upon the landscape. The day promised to be bright and clear once again. Photo left of Little Tahoma and the Emmons Glacier as viewed from the tent. Photo right is another view from the tent, looking down the Emmons and the mountain ridges beyond.

We finally roused ourselves as the sun climbed higher in the sky, warming the inside of the tent to no longer comfortable sleeping temperatures. We fixed ourselves breakfast and started packing things for our trek out. It was going to be another sunny and warm day here.

Before the sun rose too high in the sky, the haze of the lower altitudes made for a picturesque view of the ridges that surround Rainier.

As we wrapped up the packing and redistribution of group gear, we met three guys we had seen hoofing it down the mountain for the past couple hours. They were coming down pretty fast, and stopped at Camp Schurman to refill their water bottles. In chatting with them, we learned that they had summited already (and weren't coming down due to some issues with altitude or something), had seen a beautiful auroral display around 2am (nooooo! I missed seeing that!), saw a few amazing meteors, and that this was the start of their 13th hour. It was 9am. They would be back down to their cars within about 2-3 hours.

They were doing a freaking day hike up and down Rainier! And it wasn't like this was the only time they've ever done this. One guy had done it a week ago, another one of them two weeks ago. Boy, must be nice to be fit enough to just romp up and down Rainier in a day! Sheesh.

We refilled our water bottles from the glacier melt one last time (photo left of Francesca doing just that) then roped up (photos below). While the crevasse danger was minimal, the lower Emmons here has some v-e-r-y large crevasses (some of them could swallow train cars with ease), so roping up was a Good Idea.

Our order would be me going first, then Jody, then Francesca, much as we did the climb up Rainier the day before. And as we were going downhill, we didn't have to go slow. With one last look around Camp Schurman and Rainier from this vantage point, I headed down the Emmons, Jody and Francesca keeping up easily.

A few minutes later we reached the end of the trail on the Emmons Glacier (photo right), at the transition point to the rocky and sandy (and seriously hairy) traverse over to the Inter. Jody and Francesca had made it REAL clear we weren't roping up for this. If one fell, the whole team would be pulled off. No self-arresting in that dirt! I was inclined to agree.

While we were de-cramponing and wrapping up the rope, the next team of RMI guides and their clients marched down the Emmons (photo left) and overtook us. Francesca and I scurried on, not wanting to be stuck behind them on the traverse, and not wanting to have them tear it up any more than necessary before we went over. The RMI group hot on our tails (photo right). Jody opted to wait them out. So the two of us went across. And it was just a little nerve wracking. But if you kept your poise and balance, and kept moving, it was okay (photo left of Jody delicately working her way across the loose dirt and rock path). We made it to the first real snow field (about 150' or so from where we started) with no difficulties.

Then we waited for Jody, thinking and hoping she'd be ahead of the RMI group. But she wasn't. We watched as four teams of guides short-roping clients (each team consisted of a guide and two clients) came across before Jody appeared. The last group was moving very slowly, the guide looking extremely stressed. And the middle client looked pretty ashen and stressed in a different way. The guide was all but telling him where to put his right foot followed by his left food followed by his right foot followed by his...you get the picture.

Photo right of some of the large crevasses we could see on the Emmons Glacier below from near Camp Curtis.

Francesca and I, and Jody when she got to us, discussed the life of the guides on these mountains. It's a thankless job, pay is low, and the risk they put themselves in tremendous. For example, in the last group, had the client lost it - his composure, his balance, his mental stability - there was a very real chance the entire team would have been pulled off of the tenuous traverse and down onto the Emmons Glacier, now over 100' below. Was the job worth it? Depends on what your Life Values are, I suppose.

The RMI troop continued on, while we regrouped a little at Camp Curtis. Had a snack, drank, took a few photos (left of me w/Rainier in background; photo right the last view we would see of Rainier from this vantage point and angle), and talked Francesca into exactly what was going to happen next on the Inter Glacier: butt glissading!

I relayed my experiences in the past, which were all right here on the Inter. Jody had done it before elsewhere, and had brought an extra garbage bag to wear as a 'diaper' while glissading down, to not tear up her costly shell pants. Me, I had no such inhibitions. It took three long glissades over my last trips before the first hole appeared in my ski pants at that time. And this trip I had a new outer shell to break in.

Photo left at the start of the first glissade trough.

Francesca was understandably nervous, but eager to give this glissading stuff a real go (especially since she was denied doing it yesterday in the Corridor on the Emmons). There are crevasses on the Inter, but they tend to be mostly towards the edges, not so prominent in the middle. All we'd do is follow everyone else's glissade paths who went before us.

So little did we know of how much had melted off of the Inter in the past few days...

I was very interested in exactly how much altitude we would lose on this journey down (i.e., just how tall and steep is the damned Inter Glacier, anyway?), so I broke out my GPS before going and marked a waypoint at the start of a glissade and another at the end. This would give me approximate altitude differences and horizontal distances moved, the numbers that I could then plug into your basic, everyday tangent and Law of Cosines formulae (...you do remember those...don't you? ;-) ) to figure out exactly how far we were traveling (and steepness of the slope, which looked a hell of a lot steeper than the numbers say it was).

I headed on down first, followed by Jody (who commented that going last had the benefit of everyone else in front smoothing out the glissade track, allowing the last glissaders to go faster), followed by Francesca. The following three photos of Jody coming down the first glissade.

We had tightened EVERYthing down on us (I forgot to tuck in my jacket; I would remember halfway down when the bottom half of it filled with snow!), and used our ice axes as speed control (I wouldn't say "brake", but we could use them to slow down some; to completely stop, either we'd hit a flatish area or we'd roll out of the trough and self-arrest with the ice ax - as the photo right of Francesca demonstrates).

At the end of this glissade (which was about 650'), we moved over a ways and down to the next glissade path, getting more towards the middle of the glacier and away from the rock walls and crevasses that were below us.

The second glissade was much longer, just over 1100', but not all that much steeper than the first glissade. Jody went first (photo left), followed by Francesca, then myself.

As we went down, the snow was getting softer. The third glissade was a 400-footer. I went down first, and am glad I did. As I was coming near the end of the glissade line, I saw darkish, non-snow areas ahead and to my right, closing rapidly. I quickly self-arrested. It took me about 20' to stop. And not 10' from me I could see that the darkish non-snow areas were bare ice patches, most of them fairly large. It is Bad(!) to glissade down bare ice - self-arresting is not an option!

I moved back up the glacier about 50 or so feet, to get away from the ice field and so I could warn Francesca and Jody when they came down to not go any further.

Francesca and Jody followed me down. Accompanying video of Francesca's glissade down. You can see in the beginning Jody waiting above, while the camera is zoomed in on Francesca (and the resolution goes all to hell). As the video ends you can hear her ask if she should keep going and I reply "No." As you watch, you can see she is digging in on her left side with the ice ax to keep from going too fast, and as she pulls abreast of me, to slow down and stop.
video

We were a little sobered by the sudden appearance of the ice sheet. This wasn't here a few days ago. Has the snow melted that much?? Then answer was obvious: yes, it has.

As we walked over to the fourth (and final) glissade path, Jody (in front) announced there was a small crevasse off to the side. As I drew parallel to the crevasse line, I glanced over. Yeah, wasn't huge, but boy, it was dark down inside there. Reasonably deep.

Then my leg punched through the snow, and down I went!

Fortunately two things were in my favor: first off, my forward momentum with the heavy pack would carry me beyond the crevasse line. Secondly, this section of the glacier was still fairly steep. As I fell, I fell forward, downhill, and not into the icy jaws of the hidden maw.

I face-planted in the snow. I was on solid snow/ice once again, but I remembered vividly as my leg went through into the crevasse, I never felt a bottom, or side, and I went down up to my groin. Only forward momentum and the steep angle of the glacier saved me from falling fully in it.

A few paragraphs back I mentioned the darkish areas of non-snow - the ice fields that were being exposed from the melting snow. At the start of our last glissade, we were immediately adjacent to a large swath of bare ice of the Inter Glacier (photo right). It was rather impressive how much snow had melted in the past few days.

Our last glissade would drop us 1200' down to the bottom of the Inter Glacier. From there it would be an easy 3.5 mile hike out to the parking lot.

Jody went down first. And she went down fast! Francesca followed. Man....1200'...that's a long way down...

The video scan below is from the top of this final glissade. This 19 second long video first looks up the Inter, pans down and around, and finishes by looking almost straight down the final glissade. if you pause it at 18 seconds, you can trace the path of the glissade track down to the bottom of the glacier. Jody and Francesca are down there, waiting for me. The video starts out zoomed to 3x (I had forgotten I had zoomed in), then pulls back when I get to the ice field. Hopefully this will give you an idea of how high I am, and how steep the Inter Glacier is here (remember, we huffed and puffed our way up this damned thing a few days ago). The noise you hear in the video is the wind and of me adjusting the zoom in/out knob.
video

Finally it was my turn. I cinched everything down, made sure my jacket was tucked into my pant shell, got into position, readied my ice ax and....let myself go!

Within 100' or so I was flying....too fast. I had started trying to bleed off my increasing speed after about 50' with the ice ax, but it was doing little good. I started bouncing, hard, over undulations in the trough. The ice ax was next to useless at this point. DAMN, I'm going fast!

Next thing I knew, I was in the air. Bounced straight out of the trough off an undulation. A moment later I was back on the glacier - making a brand new glissade trough.

And I wasn't slowing down!


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