Friday, July 31, 2009

The Rainier Quest - Day 5, Part 2: Camp Schurman or Bust!

(continued from Part 1, below).

On the way down we reversed the order of our rope team. Francesca would lead, since Jody wanted middle, and I, the fat one of the group, would play anchor in the back. This way if either of them went into a crevasse, I could use my weight to counteract their fall. Or if I went in, they would be on the downhill side of the crevasse and not so easily be pulled in (as they might on the uphill side). Francesca wasn't happy with this arrangement, but really, for our team's disparate weight, made the most sense.

Going down was, naturally, quicker than going up. But it still isn't easy. Stepping down on softening snow (which it would be doing the rest of the day) on the steeper sections of the route would cause all of us, at one point or another, to slip and fall. Plus there were hidden crevasses with which to contend in the softening snow. In fact, I would punch through one my first crevasse not 400' below the summit on our way down. Took me completely by surprise. Fortunately, it was a small crevasse, but it threw me off-balance and I fell down to my knees. Jody, Francesca and I discussed what the protocol should be to let the rest of the team know if we fell into a crevasse. "Falling!" was the accepted call, but it can happen SO fast and SO unexpectedly that there's no time to yell "Falling!".

Photo left of Francesca and Jody, just passing by an exposed crevasse on the upper slopes of Mt Rainier.

Being in the back of the rope team, and on the way down I had more time to look around than I did before being in front on the way up. The light was also different, as the sun had moved a bit since we were here last. And really, while truly a challenging and dangerous environment to be in, it held a beauty all its own. Crevasses of various shapes and sizes, ice blocks thrust up from the compression of moving ice packs, open 'plains' of snow riddled with tiny sun-baked and wind-blown features, fields of penitentes (albeit small ones; do a google wikipedia search to see some larger ones on Rainier), etc.
Once we got out of the main wind, we started baking. Our first real rest stop (below right) was not far from where we had stopped to done our various fleece and other cold weather/anti-wind garb. We removed these added layers so as to not overheat while the sun pounded on us.

It was about this point that I ran out of my 2 liters of water. Francesca, who wasn't drinking hers as much, gave me one of her liters. I would finish this by the time we got back to Camp Schurman.

On the way down I had long put away my hiking pole, relying solely on my ice ax for a 3rd point of contact on the mountain. In my thinking, the hiking pole would allow the desired 4th point, but in the deteriorating snow conditions, I knew it would be more of a hindrance than a help, esp if I were to slip and fall, or go into a crevasse, and lose my grip on it. And since I'd need it for the hike out tomorrow, decided to go with the ice ax alone, that was leashed to my wrist.

In short order we arrived at the crevasse that we had to step across and climb up, where Francesca had lost (momentarily) her hiking stick (must have been the monsters within the crevasse). Now we had to climb down and step across. In some ways this was easier than stepping across and climbing up, but in others...more difficult. And with the snow slowly turning to slush, our foot and hand placements were that much more tenuous. With Francesca going first, Jody belayed her and I backed up Jody. Then Jody went down with a belay from me. Then it was my turn. Ended up being more or less anticlimatic, mostly because the foot holds didn't melt beneath me, dropping me straight into the crevasse.

In the photo above left, Jody watches carefully as Francesca negotiates the first moves of the downclimb. Little Tahoma Peak is just visible along the snowline horizon up to the right from them.

As we dropped in altitude, I was far more aware of the number of crevasses we had passed on the way up. Man...there were a LOT of them! Most weren't super deep (20-40'; the deeper, monster crevasses that drop 50-100' were further down the glacier), but deep enough to hurt if one fell in! Photos bracketing this paragraph are of the same crevasse. One at 'normal', one at 3x so you can see a bit more the interior.

Of all the crevasses we encountered, saw, passed by, etc, no two of them were alike. Each was unique in many ways. Some of them had smooth-sided walls, others had jagged, torn features, still others had "speleothem"-like (cave-like) growths of snow and ice on the walls. Sometimes (most times this high up the mountain) the bottoms were visible. Other times...darkness you could only see below.

Once in the 1999 trip, Bob, Aqua and I rigged an anchor at base camp to check out a nearby crevasse on the Winthrop Glacier. We dropped snowballs into it to see how far down we could track them. The bottom was darkness. The furthest a snowball fell that we could keep sight of was 3-4 seconds. We never saw it hit anything.

Given the number of crevasses we were weaving between, it's almost hard to imagine this being the "second easiest route" up Rainier. Whomever first established the trail for the season, and subsequent teams who had to move the trail due to opening crevasses, the work they all did was pretty impressive. I often wondered how early people really started climbing the Emmons route each year, and how much time they take to first pick their way between the gaping maws of potential doom. Photo left of a random crevasse somewhere around 12,400'; Little Tahoma is more visible now.

Bracketing photos here show more ice blocks upthrust from glacier ice pack compression (left), the Curtis Wall and the distant horizon (right) to illustrate steepness of the terrain we are in, and of Jody and Francesca working their way down the lower 12,000' section, with Little Tahoma more visible before us.. These are purely eye-candy shots to share with you what we were seeing, experiencing. Because I can only 'talk' for so long here, but pictures show more than words.

A little more than 3 hours after we left the summit, we were back down to...the Catwalk. The snow was really damned soft at this point (but it would only get worse before the day was out), which would make it more fun to scurry across the narrow ledge. And hopefully not fall. We stopped just short of the crevasse to assess the situation. While we were discussing the various options on how we were going to do the traverse, two guides who did not summit earlier this morning due to helping get clients down, were roaring up the Upper Corridor. In the 6 minutes from the time I first spotted them they were on us, and through the Catwalk, moving quickly. There's some confidence and mountain skill for you! Photo series below.

Finally we worked out what we were going to do. Francesca would take the two snow pickets from Jody and I on the off-chance the RMI group removed their earlier-placed pickets (they had, as it would turn out). She would then go across the crevasse, and up a little ways on the Catwalk, plant (as best as possible) a snow stake, continue higher up the Catwalk (while Jody followed across the crevasse with me belaying), plant the second snow stake, and move on to get off the Catwalk. At this point I would be coming across the Catwalk, removing the stakes as I went. The following series of three images is of Francesca moving up the first part of the Catwalk and attempting to hammer in the first snow picket. Unfortunately, she was unable to get it down very far before hitting a layer of hard ice.

The next three shots are of Jody as she made her way back across the Catwalk.

When my turn came to scurry, I delicately stepped across the crevasse, very aware of the crumbling snow beneath my feet dropping into the void below. Without tarrying or lingering, I made my way up to the first picket, retrieved it (geez, the snow was soft; that would have barely held a fall), up to the second picket (much better placed and better snow conditions there; would have held a fall), then I followed Francesca and Jody down onto the Upper Corridor. Glancing back as I hit the high point of the Catwalk I could find no sign of the two guides. Either they had moved fast and were beyond a fold in the glacier, or they had both fallen and were gone. More likely they were just moving fast.

Photo left is of crevasses and ice blocks to the side of the Upper Corridor.

As I had no place to stow the snow pickets, I half hand carried them down with me a hundred or so feet before calling for a break. Now we had 2500' of pretty much straight downhill to deal with. The snow conditions would go from slushy to worse. Francesca wanted to glissade down as this plunge-stepping was going to wreak havoc on her knees. I fully understood, but I did not want to glissade in this mess, especially with the increasing number of crevasses. Trying to self-arrest in a butt glissade is difficult to begin with, but if one member of the team goes into a deep crevasse, they have the very real chance of pulling everyone in while butt glissading. The soft snow just meant punching through a hidden crevasse was more and more likely, plunge stepping or butt glissading. I would step through 2-3 more crevasses before we were safely back at Camp Schurman, the last one less than 100' away from camp. We did opt to remove our crampons, however, as the crampons could have the side effect of suddenly grabbing the snow and holding us while we were sliding downward, forcing a face-plant fall instead of a butt-plop fall.

Photo right of Little Tahoma as we neared the 11,000' level.

We moved downward. I took very few photos during this time. Occasionally I looked up to snap an image, but otherwise I was concentrating very hard at staying on my feet. But during one brief break I did spy a neat shark-fin like feature off to our right (photo left). From this angle it looked like a fin, but from below or from the other side it looked like a pyramid face or a triangle. Nevertheless, it was neat.

I mentioned in an earlier blog entry a couple days before that the snow levels of the Inter Glacier were far, far lower this year than they were at this time 7 or 9 years ago. Below are two shots taken from 11,500-12,500', of generally the same area of the Emmons Glacier, Camp Curtis, and Camp Schurman. The image left was taken on this trip during our decent of the the Upper Corridor. The image right from the 2000 climb somewhere around 12,000'. You can see the rocky ridge that goes from Camp Schurman to Camp Curtis and beyond has a LOT more snow on it in 2000 than it does now. And even the rocky outcrop of Camp Schurman where we were camped now was mostly buried in snow back then. Very dramatic the changes in under a decade. Below are the same two images, but this time annotated so you can see the path from Camp Curtis ("C") to Camp Schurman ("S").

Anyway, back to our story...

Continuing down, I constantly was slipping, sliding, and falling, in this stuff called "snow". Francesca and Jody were doing a little better than I, but were having their share of falls, too. The hill was steep, the snow had no holding consistency. Francesca and Jody were doing a decent job of plunge-stepping in this mess. Me, being heavier, would slide through several of their steps in a row, obliterating their passage. Felt bad for the people who would be coming up in about 8 or 9 hours, but there was nothing I could do. I was basically "boot skiing" down behind Francesca and Jody. And not by choice.

Plunge-stepping is a lot of hard work. Boot skiiing, while seemingly easier, is just as difficult, maintaining balance and wobbling all over. But, we were making good time getting down. Nonetheless, I punched through one or two more crevasses along the way. I think Francesca said she also stepped into one as well. In all cases the crevasses were small enough to not swallow us whole, and our forward momentum made us fall forward onto hard snow, and not drop straight into the void.

As we neared the bottom half of the Lower Corridor, we all remembered the icy patch that we had climbed up through earlier that morning in the dark. There were crevasses all over the place there. And now we had to somehow get back down through that section in a controlled manner. When we finally hit this stuff, we slowed way down, delicately belaying each other down through this mess. I took no photos. We needed all our concentration to not slide 20-30' on ice, and/or over into a crevasse.

Finally through this section we were on our feet again, going downward. We could see a few people in the Emmons Flats camp packing up and departing - leaving no one there (photo right). But Camp Schurman was actually fuller, despite the fact the RMI and Backpacking magazine groups had left (photo left). Plenty of people had come up during the day, it seems.

5:15pm. We made it back into camp, exhausted and tired (and that's not a redundant statement!). I went to fill water bottles up (I was parched, and it was nice, cool and refreshing melting straight from the glacier :-) ) while Jody and Francesca started organizing to heat up some water for dinner. Schurman was a bustle of activity with all the new faces around, but they didn't ask us much and we didn't chat with many of them. We were just too tired to think or care. Photo left of Francesca ("it...hurts..."), photo right of Jody ("uhhhhh....too tired to eat").

Not long after dinner the two of them crawled into the tent and went to sleep. I still had some energy left, now that we were down to 9,500' again. David (the ranger) had mentioned to me the day before that one can see sunset from atop the Steamboat prow, and that the Puget Sound really comes out at that point. What he neglected to mention, and I figured out from my knowledge of sun movement patterns and time of year, that this happens close to the solstice, not several weeks after. I started to scramble up the Steamboat prow to check out the sunset, but halfway up I realized 1) the terrain I was in was loose and unforgiving of slips, and 2) I was too damned tired to try to safely make my way back down again in the twilight. I aborted the climb halfway up. But got some nice shots of Camp Schurman from this vantage point. In the photo left, you can see tents not only all over the rocky outcrop, but also down in the snow field to the right. And there are more people (5) still coming up, even this late in the day.

Once back at camp I was treated to a little sight I had not witnessed in my previous three journeys out here: the shadow of Mt Rainier as the sun sets slowly in the west. I'm pretty sure most people who come up here to climb the mountain don't see this spectacle: they were either turning in to get a few hours sleep before their summit bid that night, or had come down and either hiked out like the RMI/Backpacking magazine crews or crashed and were asleep like Jody and Francesca.

Eventually exhaustion set in, and I needed sleep, too. We still had a long hike out tomorrow. But at least the worst part of the adventure was over.

Or was it...?

1 comment:

  1. This is fascinating and entrancing sage. Thanks Indy.

    Dwight / Snurt