Mt. Rainier 2003: Failure Not An Option
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,
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 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
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!
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.
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
HERE FOR MORE PHOTOS OF MT. RAINIER TRIP