Mt. Rainier 2003: Failure Not An Option

July 2003
Report by Raoul Kennedy, Photos by Jim Albamont
Alan Andrunas, assisted by Chris Ransel, led a group of supremely fit and intrepid Las Vegas Mountaineers Club members to the summit of Mt. Rainier on July 30, 2003. The Club members who all successfully summited with the climb leaders, were: Jim Albamont, Jim Egan, Ali Haghi, Kim Friedman, Howard Herndon, Luba Leef, Alan Nakashima, Gill Shellcross, and myself.
Facts and Background
Mt. Rainier, elevation 14,411 feet, is the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states, offering an expedition climb with a full menu of the dangers of glacier travel: crevasses, seracs, avalanches and serious rock fall. Moreover, Rainier is an active volcano which volcanologists have recently determined is far more unstable than previously thought.
From the trailhead at Paradise Inn, there is a vertical elevation gain to the summit of almost 9,000 feet. The 1963 U.S. Everest team used Rainier as a training climb, and due to bad weather conditions, was unable to summit. Mt. Rainier's Ingraham Ice Fall is the site of the worst accident in North American Mountaineering History, where eleven climbers were crushed by a toppling serac.
Preparations for Success
1. All the climbers already had ample hiking experience on rough terrain and at high altitudes.
2. Focused Rainier training began six months beforehand, with regular meetings, crevasse rescue training, and the requirement of attendance at Snow School (put on by SMI in the Mammoth Lakes area).
3. During those training months, almost every week members participated in serious hikes including Telescope Peak, Mt. Charleston, Mummy Mountain, Griffith Peak, Harris Peak, White Mountain Peak and Mt. Dubois (in the White Mountain Range), just to name a few.
4. Alan Andrunas emphasized that the key to our success would be one day of acclimatization at base camp. This day of acclimatization was to be used for additional crevasse rescue and glacier travel training.
5. The climb was timed correctly. Alan pointed out that being past the Ingraham Flats by no later than noon or 1 p.m. was key to avoiding rock fall and shifting seracs due to the mid-day melting snow. Calculating backwards, this meant a summit departure of no later than 1:30 a.m.
6. Other factors included ice axes, helmets, and crampons, which are all required for the climb. Unable to carry enough water for the expedition, climbers must melt snow at base camp.
7. Luck was on our side. The good weather made a successful climb all that more likely.
The Route
The route chosen was the standard "Disappointment Cleaver" (or "D.C.") route. The first leg is 4.5 miles and begins at Paradise Inn, where we spent the night before (elev. 5,240 ft), winds up the Skyline Trail and Pebble Creek Trail up along the permanent Muir Snow Field to Camp Muir, our base camp at 10,188 feet. The snow field was steep, somewhat mushy and seemingly endless, a very unpleasant combination. Carrying full packs of gear, including our own share of group gear, for a total weight of up to 60 pounds for some of us, added a little more "challenge" to this portion of the climb! This leg took between 4.5 and 6 hours, depending on speed and breaks and involves nearly 5,000 feet of elevation gain. If a day of acclimatization is scheduled, that night is spent at base camp, camped on the snow or in one of the huts located there. The huts can be noisy in the middle of the night as climbers exit, so tents are an alternative, although the noise is unavoidable without ear plugs.
The second leg begins in the middle of the night where the roped-up and headlamp-adorned climbers cross the Cowlitz glacier from Base Camp, wind through Cathedral Gap, cross the treacherous crevasse-ridden Ingraham Flats, navigate Disappointment Cleaver, then switchback up to the Columbia Crest (summit crater) by 9:00 a.m. at the latest. A slot at 13,800 feet reportedly requires some travel along the upper part of a third glacier-- the Emmons glacier.
We were divided into three rope teams. As we set out in pitch black, I beheld a stunning view of a trail of "Christmas lights" (headlamps of the climbers ahead of us) winding up the mountain. On the way up we had trouble finding the route briefly at Cathedral Gap and for some time on Disappointment Cleaver's rocky face. On the upper part of the cleaver we crossed paths with climbers who had given up on their summit attempt and were returning to base camp. By the time we hit the top of the cleaver, it was dawn, and we could appreciate the views.
The Summit
We reached the rim at a little before 8:30, almost seven hours from Base Camp (a standard time, but we had met others along the way who did it in six). The time seemed to go by much faster, though. Thanks to the weather, the view at the summit was nothing less than spectacular. To the north we could see a Canadian mountain range, and to the south/southwest Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood and as far as Mt. Shasta. The "true" summit is not where climbers arrive at the crater rim, but is reached by crossing the crater to the other side. And yes, not a cloud in the sky that day!
The Descent
We began our descent with our deadline in mind of being past Ingraham Glacier by noon or 1 p.m., but encountered an unexpected "roadblock." A group of climbers were stopped ahead of us and appeared to be setting up an unnecessarily complicated belay to avoid a nearby crevasse. Our group later concluded that the slow group was "in over its head" and their judgement had suffered as a result: overestimating the danger and using overkill in their belay set-up. A simple running belay would have done the trick, if even that.
For more than an hour we sat on the snow waiting for the group to move and eventually, at an opportune moment, passed them, but not without hearing criticisms of "you're not supposed to pass." Our general response was that for safety reasons, climbers should adhere to the Ingraham Glacier deadline. Some of the individuals looked weak, sluggish and wobbly, and I'm not sure our reasoning was clearly understood. Crevasses in Ingraham Flats were now visible in daylight and some were heart-stopping (big enough to fit a bus and hundreds of feet deep), their innards marked by their characteristic blue-colored ice. A key set of snow wands located in the middle of the Flats indicated the path to avoid a particular crevasse; erroneously passing a mere few yards to the left could have a climber straddling the crevasse opening.
Twelve hours after departing for the summit, at 1:30 p.m., our first rope team arrived at base camp. The last team arrived at approximately 2:30 p.m. We spent one last night at base camp, packed up our gear the following morning, July 31st and headed for Paradise Inn by 9 a.m. The return to the trailhead took between one and a half and two hours, plunge-stepping in the snow much of the way. Sliding down part of the way on a ground sheet is also an entertaining possibility.
The Post-Climb
With good reason to celebrate, a number of the group decided to "hang out" in Seattle for a few days and do the tourist thing. In just a short day or two from standing at 14,411 feet, there we were sipping margaritas on the dock at sea level, watching the Blue Angels flying overhead.


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