SACAJAWEA PEAK, MOUNT RAINIER, & SOUTH SISTER
Climbing Mt. Rainier is a challenging, but rewarding endeavor. In early July, our group of 12 all made their way north to Rainier in different ways. Some drove in groups, some drove solo, some flew, and some even opted for "bonus" peaks on the way up and on the way home. I managed to hit three great peaks in addition to Mount Rainier on this trip. I climbed Sacajawea Peak in NE Oregon with Chad and Justine before Rainier, and South Sister in central Oregon and Steens Mountain in SE Oregon with Al on the way home.
I preparation for our Mt. Rainier trip, we had an assortment of training trips. We began with an awesome 2-day snow travel class taught by SMI (Sierra Mountaineering International) near Mammoth, CA. We covered all the basics of climbing on snow and glaciers (self-arrest, roped travel, crevasse rescue, etc.). Then the following weekend, we went up to the Spring Mountains for a snow camp, and practiced some of the skills we learned. We then followed that up with a Wheeler Peak backpack in harsh winds, a climb of Maturango Peak (with more snow than expected), and a snow ascent of Mummy Mountain in the Spring Mountains under ideal conditions. We carried 50 lbs. to the top of Griffith Peak in snow. Summitting Lee Peak (near Mt. Charleston) was great, but the real test was a marathon day hike of Olancha Peak in the Sierra.
Olancha is a challenging hike in summer, but was made even more of a beast by the plentiful snow! My intention in scheduling Olancha Peak was to push everyone's limits, both physically and mentally. Olancha is about 20 miles roundtrip with over 6000' of gain and is a long day hike in summer, but we scheduled it before the snow was gone to make it more difficult! I was successful in making it a "sufferfest". We hit snow early and got to practice taking crampons off and on all day. We had various issues including one guy that found his crampons didn't fit snugly onto his trail runners (me)! We also ran out of water well before the summit. It was all solid snow up there, so no water was available. Fortunately, Al saved the day; he brought a stove, and we were able to melt enough snow for water to get us through. Everyone pushed through and reached the summit, a very impressive group to say the least!
We began the hike at 2 am, summitted about 4 pm, and returned to the trailhead at about 2:15 am, for a LONG day of over 24 hours of hiking! To sum up the craziness of the trip, I had set my watch alarm for 1:30 am for the 2 am departure. As I was hiking back down the trail nearing the vehicles, my alarm went off...again! Scary!
I addition to these training trips we did much crevasse rescue, rope travel, and ascending the rope, both as a large group, and also in our individual rope tems of 4 people. I was very happy with our training overall. The only thing I would change would be to practice more roped travel. Being roped to 3 other people for 16 hours on summit day is difficult at best, and can fray the nerves of even the most patient. As it turned out, rope dynamics probably prevented all 12 of our group from summitting.
Before I launch into our Rainier trip, let me first discuss Sacajawea Peak and South Sister, two wonderful peaks (both over 5K of prominence).
Sacajawea is a true gem of a peak a bit off the beaten track tucked into the far NE corner of Oregon. It is just under 10,000', but feels much higher. It is the highest peak in the Wallowa Mountains and the views get more amazing the higher you climb.
The hike via Thorp Creek follows a trail for the first 2 miles or so before an elusive turn off the main trail leads to a crossing of Hurricane Creek. This was the toughest part of the peak. There was supposed to be a log crossing, but it was gone so we had to ford the creek. It was deep enough to be challenging (maybe mid-thigh or so) and the current was fairly strong. It was difficult but doable.
Chad bravely fording Hurricane Creek
Strolling through the forest
Lush wildflowers with numerous waterfalls in background
Justine and Chad trudging along
From there we were eventually able to find the continuation of the Thorp Creek trail and followed up steep switchbacks to a scenic ridgeline. After a while the trail led down into the wide Thorp Creek drainage. Justine opted to stop there as she didn't want to burn herself out before Rainier. She enjoyed the lovely scenery as Chad and I continued up the steepening drainage, then straight up the shoulder of the mountain. There was good trail almost the whole way, but it got very steep and loose near the top. We gained over 2000' in the 1.5 miles after leaving Justine until the top!
Chad ascending the steep trail up Sacajawea
Chad leaving the summit of Sacajawea
As we approached the summit, we were blown away by the alpine feel of the range, with plenty of snow all around us. We never had to hike on snow, but looking around us, it seemed hard to believe since every ridge, peak and valley looked full of snow. After a quick bite, and savoring the summit for a bit, we headed to down to pick up Justine. We found her relaxing by the creek, and headed down together.
I had been a little apprehensive about re-crossing Hurricane Creek. I was worried that what was challenging in the morning, would be significantly more so as the snowmelt increased in the afternoon. When we reached the crossing, it looked about the same. However the current was definitely stronger. The three of us locked arms and marched across, trying to keep on our feet. The bottom of the creek was all football-sized rocks that were somewhat slippery. Several times one of us one of us would stumble a bit, but we kept going. As we reached the deepest part, Justine nervously asked, "Are we OK?" Chad and I just told her keep moving. We were so elated when we reached the other side!
From there it was a cakewalk back to our campsite at the trailhead. Despite my rocky tent site, I slept the deepest I ever have the two nights we camped there. My proximity to the "white noise" of the rushing creek next to my tent was amazing. I even slept through my alarm!
So on the way home from Mt. Rainier, Al and I stopped to do another Ultra (over 5000' of prominence), South Sister. South Sister is located near Bend, Oregon and is just over 10,000'. We camped at a Devil Lake campground, right at the trailhead. I was hoping for a early start, but since we arrived right at dusk, and indulged in a few celebratory beverages, we didn't get to sleep until about midnight. We still managed to be hiking by a little after 7 am the next morning.
Al ready for South Sister
I had read many recent trip reports of South Sister climbs, and there was a large discrepancy in the gear people brought. I anticipated some snow, so we opted for ice axes, but no crampons (a good decision as it turned out). I opted for my light trail runners instead of my waterproof heavy boots, which probably was a good decision, although I wasn't sure early in the day. From the trailhead at 5000', we follwed a steep trail through the woods. By 6000' we were hitting plentiful snow! The combination of deep snow banks, steep terrain and cool, shady conditions made the snow very icy and slick (not conducive to travel by trail runners)! I had to use my ice ax as a crutch to keep falling down. Travel was slow for me in this section as I flopped around like a fish out of water.
Fortunately the steep well-shaded trail eventually led to open plateau, where the snow was much softer. This part of the climb was very pleasant as we had an easy walk across the plateau with excellent views of South Sister looming ahead.
Plateau with South Sister behind
Soon the trail started up, getting steeper and steeper. The trail on the steep ascent was completely snow-free, but the volcanic scree made the footing difficult at times. Eventually we slogged our way up to the summit crater. From there we had the option of either following a trail around the perimeter of the crater or crossing the snowfield directly to the true summit. We chose the latter route and soon reached the summit.
Joel on summit of South Sister (looking south)
I have summitted a fair number of peaks in my day, and have seen some terrific views, but the view from South Sister was the most far-reaching I have ever seen! Looking south you could see Mt. McLoughlin in southern Oregon, and beyond that Mt. Shasta loomed, over 150 miles away! Looking north was even more dramatic. You could see the nearby Middle and North Sisters, followed my Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and then, far off, just faintly visible the massive form of Mount Rainier, which was 200 miles away. It was completely breathtaking.
Looking north from the summit of South Sister
The descent was steep,
but fun. We enjoyed several decent glissades on a quick descent. The most
amazing thing was the change in a lake we passed on the route. On the
way up, snow covered one edge of the lake forming a ramp. I made a comment
to Al on the ascent, that we could slide down the ramp into the lake like
a waterslide. when we passed the lake on our descent, I happened to look
down at the lake, and noticed the "ramp" had collapsed and fallen
into the lake! There was one chunk floating like an iceberg that was probably
20 ft. by 20 ft. by 40 ft. Too bad we weren't hiking by it when it actually
Iconic view of Rainier driving in
On the afternoon of July 8th, our LVMC group of 12 met at the climbing ranger hut in Mt. Rainier National Park. We filled out the requisite paperwork, chatted with the rangers, and snapped a few photos, before heading out to camp before our Rainier ascent began the next day. Most of us camped at nearby Cougar Rock campground. Penny and Susie did a fantastic job securing a group site for the 8 of us that camped there. It was large enough for all our tents, and for us to organize our packs, no small task. Penny and Susie took splitting group gear to the next level by weighing each component, then solving a complex math equation to balance the weight exactly!
We discussed all sorts of logistics: start time, radio check-in times, who would carry ropes and other group gear, weather, etc. We came to the decision that Kevin, Amber, Paul, and Monika would start at 2 am, Jodie and Justine would start around 4 am, and that the rest of us would start as planned, at 6 am sharp. I anticipated the ascent to Camp Muir would take 6-7 hours. The ascent is almost 5000' from Paradise at 5400' to Camp Muir at 10,100', made much more daunting by the heavy packs we were all carrying. Our packs weighed from 45-60 lbs. and we felt every pound on the steep ascent!
Beautiful wildflowers down low
The six of us leaving at 6 am got to "sleep in" until 5 am in camp. As we drove the 10 minutes to Paradise, the early morning views were breathtaking; it was a beautiful, cloudless morning. We made last minute adjustments in the pleasantly open parking lot before beginning our ascent. The first part of trail is actually a paved, but steep, walkway. We made steady progress, and after a mile or so, the paved walkway changed dirt and rock, covered in sections by snow. It was nice knowing we had all morning to get to camp, so we stopped for a few breaks en route to enjoy the splendid scenery.
Eventually we came to end of the trail and the beginning of the Muir Snowfield. Eyeballing the route from down below, the snowfield did not look steep, but as we began up, we realized that it has to be steep to gain 2000' in 1.5 miles. We set out at moderate pace, but as we meandered our way higher and higher, we began to spread out into a faster and slower factions. My goal was for us all to get there in 7 hours at the latest. The guides actually turn clients around that do not reach the camp in 6.5 hours, but our packs were heavier than clients' would be.
The long slog up Muir Snowfield
I made camp in just over 6 hours at a reasonable pace. Jose was about hour ahead, and most of the others were a bit behind me. We were so happy to be up there and take off our beastly backpacks! Camp Muir is long, narrow area with tents crammed in everywhere. They allow 110 people to camp there each night. The rangers told us it was about 75% full our first night (Sunday night), but that had been 100% full the past two nights. There were lots of groups in the process of breaking camp as we arrived. Chad and I found a good spot with a nice wind shelter already built. We asked the group there when they were leaving, and they said soon. So we relaxed for a bit, chatting with others about their summit day experiences.
When our spot was clear, we finally set up our tent, and began the tedious chore of melting snow for water. For those who haven't done this before, it is a slow process at best. We needed at least 4 liters each for summit day, plus another liter or two for drinking at camp, plus hot water for our dehydrated dinners. It took even more time as our fuel pump seemed to have a leak. Eventually, we borrowed Jose's and things sped up. We had a sysyem where we would just melt the snow with the stove, then purify it with my steripen. Finally, we had enough water and ate dinner.
We also talked to the two climbing rangers that come through camp each night to check permits and talk to climbers. They told us to start early to avoid congestion and try to be on the summit no later than 9 am. They mentioned two dangerous to not stop in - the Bowling Alley, an area of icefall just before getting onto Disappointment Cleaver, and the Tsunami, a huge "wave" of snow/ice just above the route at about 12,600'. They also told us about the bergschrund, a crevasse just before reaching the summit crater, that bottlenecks quite badly.
We had originally planned to leave camp at midnight on summit day, but after talking to the rangers, we decided on 11 pm instead. as it turned, our three four-person rope teams actually were moving at 11:30 pm. We had set the ropes up before going to sleep, but still woke up around 10-10:15 pm, hardly a good night's sleep. It looked like a nice morning (temps around 40), with a full moon to help us. So summit day began with a fairly level traverse across the Cowlitz Glacier. We had to step across a couple of tiny crevasses (only a few inches wide), but nothing like what we would encounter later in the day!
Looking back on Camp Muir from Cathedral Gap
After crossing the Cowlitz, we ascended a dirt and loose rock trail through Cathedral Gap. The tedious part of this section, and much more so on Disappointment Cleaver, was that we had to "short-rope". Short-roping is the practice of shortening the distance between roped climbers from our usual 30 feet to about 6 feet. The idea is to keep the rope from dragging and knocking rocks on climbers below, but is quite annoying. It wasn't too bad on Cathdral Gap, because it was a decent trail to follow. However on the rocky cleaver, there was class 2-3 scrambling in crampons on loose crumbly rock! When one would scramble up a rock, the rest of the team would have to move at the same uneven speed...AWKWARD!
Ingraham Glacier and Ingraham Flats camp in background
Anyway, past Cathedral Gap, we ascended the Ingraham Glacier and passed the higher camp at Ingraham Flats. We took a break here, and I noticed there was considerable tension between one rope team, and I don't mean rope tension! Our next break was to be on top of Disappointment Cleaver, quite a haul from here. We crossed the Bowling Alley and started up the crumbly rock of Disappointment Cleaver. The route, marked by wands, became difficult to follow here, and we had various issues in this section: routefinding, crampon malfunctions (walking on rock is tough in crampons), layering up and down, etc. It was a bit stressful on everyone I think, but we pushed to reach the top of the cleaver and have a break/ discussion.
The Bowling Alley
Our group reached the break spot first, had some snacks, and tried to stay warm waiting for the others. It was cold and windy up there, making us anxious to get moving again. After about 20 minutes, we all reached this spot, which is essentially the halfway point to the summit from camp. It was 4:15 am and still dark. One rope team decided to split into two teams as their issues had gotten worse, and the other rope team was slower and we were worried about our turnaround time. Basically what happened was that we made a hasty decision because of the conditions, to send three climbers down. I wish it didn't happen like this, but it did. Anyway, we reconfigured rope teams and continued.
Above the cleaver, the route became much more circuitous and challenging with numerous crevasses. Most of the route was easy to follow with wands, but the guides had been changing it weekly to avoid changing crevasses, so there were a couple of spots where it was a bit ambiguous. The route took us below the 100-foot Tsunami, which was both very impressive and scary. We probably crossed 10-12 crevasses in this section, most of which were easy step-overs, but there were about three that really got your attention, and the bergschrund was the crux of the route in my opinion. Fortunately, the guides had put in pickets for protection above, but it was still demanded full attention.
One of many crevasses to cross
Don't fall in there!
Looking down on our route below
Zigzagging between crevasses
We made slow, but steady progress going up, but the thin air made breathing much more difficult. We all used pressure breathing and the rest stop, two skills we learned in snow school. It seemed to take forever, but we finally reached the summit crater about 8:15 am. We took a nice long break, dropped much of our gear, and crossed the 3/4 mile through the crater to the true summit.
We signed the summit register located in a rock outcropping a bit below the actual summit, then trudged up the slope to the highest point in Washington, the king of the Cascade volcanoes, the summit of Mt. Rainier at 14,411'. It was a strange, but satisfying moment. Everyone got quite emotional. Tears were shed, and there were big hugs all around. This was the culmination of 8-9 months of training and planning and a lot of bonding with our group. I was proud of myself and the others up there, but felt disappointed that not all 12 of our team made it.
Our entry in the register (in green pen of course)
Amber and Kevin on the summit!
Summit of Mt. Rainier
The views were good, but were obscured by clouds. We ate a snack, took numerous summit photos, and headed back across the crater. After getting all roped up again we headed down.
We hit a little bottleneck at the bergschrund, but finally made it across. Descending was much scarier than ascending because the snow was softer, and, psychologically, it is harder when you are looking right into the abyss you would fall into if you slip! We all made it across the challenging crevasses, some by jumping (yeehaw). Once past the main crevasse danger, we felt better, but found that descending the cleaver was its own adventure. It had warmed up and the snow was so soft and slushy, on the steep descent it was almost impossible to stay on your feet. We kept all falling on our rear ends repeatedly (and being pulled by the short-rope)! Finally, we got off the cleaver and retraced our route back to camp.
I was so relieved to get unroped. The biggest thing I learned on the trip was just how difficult it is to be roped to 3 other people for 16 hours in challenging conditions! It is annoying at best, and caused significant friction within the rope teams.
It was late afternoon by the time we got back to camp, and Chad and I considered packing up and hiking out, but opted to stay another night at Camp Muir (we had reserved for 4 nights). About half the group hiked out that afternoon. We relaxed a bit, ate some food, and were asleep by 6:30!
The next morning, we got up got loaded up and were heading down by about 7:30. Chad and I managed to get a few good glissades in on the snowfield, and the descent went really fast. Before long we were back on the trail with throngs of tourists out for day hikes.
We exchanged pleasantries with many of them, and had some hilarious conversations. One guy, saw our gear and asked if we went all the way. We said yes, and he said "cool". His idea of "all the way" was all the way to Camp Muir. It occurred to him about a minute later that we went ALL the way, and he started yelling questions, from the switchback above us!
My favorite interchange was a lady that was hiking part of the Wunderland Trail (a trail that goes around the base of the mountain). She asked where we had hiked, and we said "to the top". She asked "to the top of what?" Chad and I paused, looked at each other, pointed up, and said, "Uhh, Mt. Rainier?!" She was completely flabbergasted and very impressed. We felt sooooo cool!
Back in Paradise, we stopped for a beverage or two before heading our separate ways.
This was a trip I will always remember. The thing I will treasure the most are the strong bonds formed by our somewhat eclectic, but great group, on Mt. Rainier itself, but mostly forged on our outings leading up to it. This was an excellent trip made possible by good weather and conditions, and I was so proud of our group, including the ones who did not summit.
Looking back, the only thing I would have changed about our training was to have practiced more in our 4-person rope teams to improve teamwork.
And, finally I want to give a big thanks to Dan Young. Our LVMC Rainier trip in 2011 was led by Dan. Though we did not summit then, I learned so much from him about mountaineering and the training leading up to an endeavor like this. Thanks Dan!
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