Right on, Rainier: a ski jaunt up and down the Fuhrer Finger

NOTE: All photos/videos current to route conditions as of March 5/6, 2015.

Unfolding on layers of rock, or ice, or the accumulated winters of a snowfield, geology and weather can be so patient. On their own time scale, they’re moving right along. But on ours, they fairly stand still, and following their slow lead informs a safer mindset: the mountain isn’t going anywhere. We can come back. There’s nothing wrong with stepping down, turning back, making the harder choice.

The truth, though, is that when something catches my notice, or lodges itself in the folds of my brain, that patience is tested. It’s hard to pick good conditions, good people, plan well, and not succeed on an objective. The thought of turning back when many things have aligned can be burdensome. Worse, it’s the feeling of work not yet done on a big goal that eats at me. Such have been the past couple years on Mt. Rainier. I’ve written about those climbs, both our attempt on the Finger in 2013, and our group attempt via the DC last summer.

The net result of both was that I learned quite a bit, but hadn’t been anywhere near the summit. So for this spring, I’d put that goal pretty high on my list. May or June seemed like the time to do it–until a couple weeks ago, when it occurred to me that with the vicious cycle they’ve been having, a March attempt might make some sense. March might be the new May, to quote a local friend.   Of course, the trip wouldn’t have been possible without partners. Blake Votilla was heading to Rainier to interview for a guiding job with RMI (which he now has–congrats!), so we shuffled dates, brought Miles and Mike on board, and hoped to meet up around 9am Thursday.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, I loaded up and headed on out from Kalispell. The drive was most interesting going over White Pass. Snow guns with lights trained into their tubes of snow made for a remarkable sight in the dark. A kind lady helped me with directions to the Skate Creek Road at 1:30am. Just an hour later, I pulled into Ashford, shuffled gear, and fell asleep. Six hours later, Blake, who must have been out on a walk, casually strolled by. We chatted while I packed, discussed a couple things, and headed into the park to find Miles and Mike. After half an hour of waiting for them in the Longmire parking lot, we realized they were in the ranger station–waiting for us. Our permit secured, we headed back out to organize. Then Miles walked up to the group: “Turns out there’s going to be another group on the Finger. The best part is that my ex-girlfriend is in it.” This set off all kinds of speculation about camp that night, though we’d later realize that the other party wasn’t planning to camp anywhere near us. Everything went into two vehicles for the trip up to Paradise. We reorganized, and were off to a great alpine start of almost exactly noon. Looking out across, with the red line indicating our route. Things went smoothly. We dropped off the main trail near the base of Pan Point, traversed over a moraine, and roped up to cross the lower Nisqually and Wilson Glaciers en route to camp. Blake and Miles took one 30m, with Mike and I behind. Perhaps the biggest thing that I notice every time I’m on Rainier is exactly that: it’s big. The scale is way off for most of the mountain environments I’ve played in. For reference, compare the route picture above. The first line covers about 4000ft feet of gain, while the second is over 5000ft. Another angle on the vastness, of Mike and me: We found things more cracked out than we expected. Paradise, and I assume the mountain at large, has seen only a fraction of its yearly snow, and I remember fewer detours around broken areas from our April trip two years back. Other than that, some fresh snow from a few days prior make for easy skinning. We made it to camp at around 9200’with daylight to spare, and only a little bit of treacherous ice. Mike and Miles sidle in. Citing the good weather, we took a Megamid just in case, but never needed it. A wind drift below a massive rock offered a nice floor and room for bunks. As I’m demonstrating, it’s important to check the softness of your mattress in these wild climes. Once settled, we melted a preposterous amount of snow to rehydrate. Its amazing how much water you go through at elevation, with a medium sized pack, trying to make good time. Past trips haven’t seen me succeeding at drinking enough, and paying a price performance wise. Then, Miles pulled a small deli’s worth of veggies, cheese, and sauce out of his pack, and cooked some incredibly delicious backcountry pizzas. The secret seems to lie in a just add water crust, mixed in a ziplock and then squeezed out to cook in a pan. Rich eating, that’s for sure. Very tasty. Though our kitchen and dining room was nice, I wanted more counter space for making sandwiches. Snow walls make for easy remodels. Somewhere in there, we all bedded down in the alcove, passing off to dreamland. The moon was bright and further across the sky every time I woke up. Then the alarm jangled out of my watch at 3am, and we were up again. We took forever to get out of camp, mostly because we really hit the water hard. I’ll take the blame there. 5:30 saw us skinning across the glacier, ski crampons crunching into the refrozen surface. Navigation happened at the length of a headlamp, and it was strange to watch the beams of Miles and Blake searching the mounds of snow and ice ahead of us for the route across the basin and into the bottom of the finger. Above us, ice and snow hung and loomed in the dark. On my end of the rope, I felt pretty dang small there, just moving forward across the snow in the direction we knew the Finger’s couloir to be, the rope to Mike tugging behind me. Eventually, light came and we began to angle up into the couloir. I dropped the rope to Mike, and continued up. Ski crampons would bite in, then sometimes slide. Switching to crampons would be more secure as our feet punched in through the thin surface of crust, but then we’d lose the efficiency of out skins. The angle forced our hands (or maybe more appropriately, our feet) as the sky began to go those pastel colors you see on Lisa Frank pony coloring books. Here, Mike chews on a ski strap to keep his energy up. Leader shot from Blake, the rest of us chugging along behind him: We had to high side on climbers left to avoid cracks radiating off the Nisqually Icefall towards the upper part of the Finger. There wasn’t enough snow, to our eyes, to allow a glacier traverse. This meant a steep pitch to that top that we belayed up to avoid a roped tumble into the open crevasses below. It’s worth noting that we couldn’t see a good line for a traverse into
the Nisqually, though I know that’s sometimes good route finding, as when Wildsnow did it.
Once there, we found our way across a little pass and onto the summit glaciers. Things were starting to slow down in our rope team. Water and exhaustion were taking their toll as we strolled upwards. Mike takes it in. The Finger proper is down and to the left. Rainier so dwarfs any of the foothills around it that it doesn’t have the feel of Mt. Baker, the other stratovolcano I’ve climbed. Plus, because the base is so broad, the upper reaches feel more like a big plateau than the top of an individual mountain. It goes on, and on, and on. The scale constantly messed with my head. Maybe five hundred feet above where the last picture was taken, Mike had had enough. He’d pushed super hard, but was exhausted. It was smart for him to stop and save his energy for the trip down. With the emergency sleeping bag in my pack, he could bundle up and wait. The weather seemed fine. Part of me wanted to call it off and wait for him, but I’ll be honest–the part of me that wanted to finish what the two trips previous hadn’t done was really strong. I wanted to make the summit. With his urging, I tied in with Blake and Miles to finish the last 700ft or so to the top. Rope snagging on wind sharpened sastrugi, we fairly flew up the last bit of glacier to find the summit decorated with small plates of ice and a bitingly cold wind. I would have liked to hang out, but the wind was fierce. Plus, Mike was waiting. Plus, the gate to Paradise would close and lock at 5pm. It was just after 1pm. We’d need a nearly record setting pace on feet to make it in time. Of course, we weren’t on feet for the 9000ft we were about to descend. We had skis. It was rattley, chattery, and strange. We crossed snow bridges, dodged sastrugi, and made scrapey turns down big panes of wind affected snow. Mike was awakened from his nap by our hollers of glee. Once the whole band was back together, we took off again.

Arriving at the lower part of the Nisqually, we skinned back up to join the main trail. Miles, Mike, and I forwent our shirts for the last bit to Paradise. Whippets and ripped abs, I tell ya…

Thanks to Blake, Miles, and Mike for a terrific trip. Thanks also to Blake for photos.

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2 thoughts on “Right on, Rainier: a ski jaunt up and down the Fuhrer Finger

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