Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Rainier Quest - Day 4: The Inter Glacier, and Beyond!

July 20, 2009

Daybreak came quite early. Still we slumbered a while longer. Finally, nature forced us to get up. I decided to take a quick stroll around the hill where we were camped, catch the morning light and views of the basin from different angles. It was all very nice.

After a hot breakfast we proceeded to take down the tent and pack up everything. Water was restocked, and one more trip to the solar compost bathroom. We loaded our packs onto our backs and set out on the trail. Today was going to be a steep hike. 3,000' elevation gain in about a 2 mile hike. The first bit would be gentle. Then there'd be the Inter Glacier...

The hike up was pleasant. The Backpacking magazine group had already taken off about 20 minutes before us. Everyone else in the camp was having a nice, relaxing get-up time. As we cleared the trees, the sun was warm, bright. The wildflowers were casting a gentle spray of color across the meadows and dotting the more rocky, barren slopes. Pollen-collecting insects danced lazily amongst the flowers. The breeze off the mountain was just gentle enough to keep us from overheating.

The temperature steadily got warmer as we climbed up the basin. We stopped periodically to shed some of the morning clothing (but would re-don it again once we got to the snowfields)

Before too long the bottom section of the Inter Glacier hove into view. Yeah....there was a lot less snow and ice up there than there was 7+ years ago! Man. But the glissade tracks were still very evident, where previous climbers had butt-slid down the glacier in a quick and relatively less jarring way down than plunge-stepping.

Then our attention was drawn to the white-capped peak above the Inter Glacier.

Mt Rainier itself, peaking from behind the Steamboat Prow.

While we were resting for a bit, Francesca suddenly piped up with "Pizza delivery?" I said, "Sure, why not," not realizing that right behind me was a guy in sneakers packing three large pizzas up the trail. I heard, "I only take credit cards". I spun around to see this sight and was a little surprised - enough that it took me a few moments to remember to fumble out the camera because NO one would believe this! By the time I did, he had already marched on - but not quite far enough I couldn't get a pic! Hehehe. Yeah. Pizza delivery up here at the base of the Inter Glacier. Not 30 minutes or less Dominos - but really, who would cares?? It's pizza delivery on a frigging mountain!

We finally gathered our stuff to keep going through the rocky, undulating terrain. The pizza guy was nearly out of sight, traveling so quickly. We cleared a hump in the basin and suddenly got a complete full-on view of the lower section (steep!!) of the Inter Glacier. And there, in the distance, was the pizza guy. As well as a handful of other people. Three coming down, and a group of 6 or so milling about (the Backpacking magazine group had already cleared the first steep section of the Inter and were well above us). The photo left is an unannotated hi-res view. I left it hi-res so you could scan about and play "find Waldo" with the pizza guy and the nine climbers. The photo right is the 'cheat', with the nine climbers circled in yellow, pizza guy in red.

Eventually we got to the base of the Inter Glacier itself. Man, that thing is s-t-e-e-p! I swear the Park Service cranked it a few more degrees vertical since the last time I was here.

I had two hiking poles and an ice ax, whereas Francesca and Jody each had only one hiking pole and ice ax. I swapped one of my hiking poles for the ice ax to climb the glacier. We opted to not strap on the crampons as the snow was soft but seemed stable. We saw where the Backpacking magazine troop had gone up and followed in their kicked-in steps (made it much easier than kicking our own!). We also opted to not rope up, as my experience on the Inter was that the bulk of the crevasses were on the sides, and as long as we stayed in the middle, we'd be fine.

And while crevasses we saw, we were fine, following the footsteps and glissade paths of those who had come (and gone) before.

But that is not to say we didn't see any crevasses! The Inter had some rather impressively sizeable ones on its flanks that we were able to easily bypass.

The climb up the Inter lasts pretty much forever. Of the 3000' elevation gain done between Glacier Basin and Camp Schurman, 2/3 of it is right here in this short stretch. We would ultimately travel 0.8 miles horizontal distance, and climb over 2000' vertically. You can work out the math yourself to get the average angle we were climbing through. But suffice it to say that the first 784' was by far the absolute steepest, and was covered in the space of 0.17 miles horizontal (okay, okay, not all of you are engineer or math-driven puzzle-solving types; that translates to a 61 degree drop - i.e., pretty damned steep!). Then it eased off, but in waves. The photo to the upper right is of Jody about 1500' up from the start of the Inter Glacier.

Eventually, nearly 3 hours later we reached the Camp Curtis ridge on the upper flank of the Inter Glacier (photo to left is Francesca coming onto the rocky ridge and off of the Inter). There we would get our first real view of Mt Rainier and the upper Emmons glacier that we would be climbing tomorrow. It's a really damned big mountain...

From this point I have always roped up. We would traverse the snowy edge of the Camp Curtis ridge and drop down onto the Emmons Glacier, which was chock full of car-swallowing crevasses (photo left). We would stay roped up until we got to Camp Schurman, where we would go unroped for a bit before deciding whether or not to continue up to Emmons Flats, or just stay in Schurman. I was getting tired and ready to lobby for staying in Schurman, especially since the rumors we'd been hearing from climbers coming down were true about fresh water melting straight off the glacier and into your water bottle - would save us extra time and fuel in trying to melt snow.

At Camp Curtis we had caught up with the Backpacking magazine group. But just barely. While we were taking a breather and getting out the rope (photo upper right), they started across the ridge (which looked much rockier than I remembered it being) and over down onto the Emmons Glacier (photo left; you can see a couple of people at the end of the second snowfield next to the steeply sloped rock and gravel wall).

It was about a half mile trek from Camp Curtis to Camp Schurman. We would drop about 100' down onto the Emmons Glacier, then have to work our way up 600' to Schurman. In 15, 20 minutes we should be there.

We had to decide the order we would travel in. Being most familiar with the area, I would go first. Jody opted for middle of rope, and Francesca for anchor in back. This way if I were to punch through a crevasse, I would be on the uphill side of the group, making it easier for them to arrest my fall. And anything my fat ass didn't punch through meant it was probably safe enough for the two of them, being lighter, to walk over it, too.

From our vantage point I pointed out our track to Jody and Francesca (photos right; lower of two has route in yellow). It was obvious some fairly large crevasses had opened this season, as the new trail wound further left than the old trail did, before cutting back sharply right and making a beeline for Schurman. Even still, there were some hefty crevasses over by Schurman that the trail wove through.

We got underway. The next few hundred feet would prove to be some of the most dangerous ground we traveled through as a team. In the past this ridge traverse was 90% or more snow pack. was more like 90% of loose ballbearing gravel with some unsecure loose rocks half-buried within. Had any one of us slipped, the entire team was going to go down over 100' onto the Emmons Glacier, and we'd be having a real unhappy trip. Both Francesca and Jody made it extremely clear after the fact they had absolutely no intention of roping up on that on the way out. I was feeling torn by it, because roping up is "how we do it". But their arguements were difficult to counter in this case. I decided to not pursue an extended discussion and save it for two days hence.

Stepping off the shitty loose rocky ridge and onto the glacer (above left) was not exactly trivial, either. There were crevasses - albeit not deep, but deep enough - that we would have to immediately weave about. Then we could continue in relative safety from this point.

The snow melting off from the walls made for some interesting forms of natural art (photo right for one example). In a day or two the art would change or collapse, while new structures formed from the melt.

Once on the Emmons (photo left), we marched along at a reasonable pace, pausing momentarily to check out one or two of the crevasses that we passed rather uncomfortably close (photo right). But all was good, the trail kept us over the narrow section which we could easily step over. And a short time later we reached...Camp Schurman!

The last time I was here, Camp Schurman was mostly snow, very little exposed rock, except by the ranger's hut. The few sites on the rocks were always taken, and I either camped on the glacier (Winthrop) or marched up to Emmons Flats. Now, there was a large outcrop of rock directly in front of the ranger's hut, and it was full of potential tent sites. Since it was getting late in the day, and we were getting on tired and wanted to get to bed and sleep before long, we decided to punt on the Emmons Flats idea and stay at Schurman. Yeah, Emmons Flats would give us a 300' vertical advantage on starting out for the summit, but the benefits of staying at Schurman outweighed that one data point.

The rock bulge where most people were setting up camp acted like a breaker against the wave of the glaciers moving down against it. This is where the Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers merged (and basically are referred to collectively as the Emmons from here on up). If you were to stand on the rocky outcrop and look towards Rainier, but down where the glaciers met the outcrop, you would see buckles of ice ridges and cracked crevasses all around. This snapshot in time was awe-inspiring, when trying to think of how the ice moved over the years.

That is, the ice that didn't melt away first!

I don't (yet) know who Schurman was, or why this camp was named after him. Nothing in my internet searches turned up anything on the man. However, there was a quote plaque of him on the outside wall of the ranger's hut I had not noticed on prior trips. I'm sure it's been there the whole time, though. You can click on the image to the right to read it fully.

Francesca and Jody located a site for us to set up camp while I checked out the fresh meltwater source from the glacier and took a 360-degree video pan of the area. Unfortunately, the 56 second video is 106 MB in size, and this blog only accepts video no larger than 100 MB. If I find another way to host it I'll put a link in later.

The astute amongst you may have noticed how I described the morning all sunny and glee, but in the photos it grew more and more cloudy as the day wore on. Yeah, we noticed that, too. The forecast was for sunny and clear for the next five days. Given that Rainier can have squirrely weather and something might be developing unpredicted, we thought to check with the ranger. He should have some sort of vague idea of what was going on (ranger hut and Camp Schurman toilet building in photo left).

When we found him and asked, vague was his answer! "Seattle and Portland have horrible weather forecasts. Rarely right. Mt Rainier is even worse. Who knows? It might be nice tomorrow, or it might storm. If I tell you one or the other, you will enter into your day tomorrow with that weighing on your mind. But this might blow through. Or not."

The ranger, David (red jacket, photo right), has been a ranger here at Schurman since 1996. I first met him on my first Rainier attempt in 1999. He has a small farm somewhere in eastern Washington (that much I remembered from our first conversation 10 years earlier). He's been here every year since, seasonally, from May to Sept. This year he had a friend: Phunuru Sherpa (pronounced "peh-nu-ru"; in yellow jacket in photo right) from Khumbu village in Nepal. Phunuru is over here for 6 months training to be a ranger for Everest. He has spent some time at Denali base camp, learning the Ways of the Rangers there, and now was spending some time here on Rainier with David. After he returns to Nepal to become the head ranger at Everest basecamp. Very cool to have met him.

Over the years David has acquired a few odd knick knacks for his hut. Some of them inside, some of them out. Jody immediately found the outside ones. Francesca, one of the inside.

But now it was time to cook up a quick dinner, then turn in for the night. The sun would still be up for a couple more hours, it would be light for several, before darkness finally descended upon us. I briefly spoke with the leader of the Backpacking magazine group, Alaina. She said they were planning on getting up around 11:30pm, on the trail by 12:30am. And that she spoke to the RMI guides. They were planning on getting up around 12:30am, and on the trail by 1:30am. This way they would not be on top of each other. So I figured we should shoot for getting up around midnight, and on the trail by 1am., putting us squarely between the two groups. With that plan in mind, we turned in.

I wrapped a bandana around my eyes and tried to fitfully sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a BIG day...


  1. "on the trail by 1am"
    This is exactly why I am NOT a mountain climber!

    Great story... can't wait for the rest...

  2. As the result of this post I just bought hiking poles from! Many users rated the product as a good buy. The average rating provided was pretty good. The ratings were useful and I got a good deal for the product from the same site.

  3. Wow, those crevasses freak the bejesus outta me!

    I did some digging and found that Clark Schurman was a chief summit guide at Rainier. He was also a poet, artist, and writer, and his mountain sketch book was published in The Mountaineer in 1939.

  4. No wonder you had a hard time falling asleep. You "tried to fitfully sleep"; next time I recommend trying to restfully sleep. :P