Story by Seth Waterfall; photos by Tyler Jones and Andy Bond
The Nisqually Glacier is the most easily viewed of all the glaciers on Mt. Rainier. Facing the Paradise Visitor Center, it runs four miles from the 14,410-foot summit down to about 4,500 feet in the Nisqually Valley. At about 12,500 feet, the ice forms a giant cliff where the glacier breaks apart over a large rocky step and smashes itself back together 1,000 feet below. Usually unskiable, the heavy snows this winter have filled in one side of the cliff, and a continuous line appeared, begging to be skied.
My friends Tyler Jones, Andy Bond, and I had a random convergence in the Northwest after being on separate agendas for the winter. Tyler had been ski-guiding in La Grave, France; Andy spends his winters in British Columbia; and I had just returned from a trip to Haines, AK. Andy had recently been bombarding me with emails about how the ski conditions on Rainier were about to “go off” so we all met up in Ashford, WA, to wait for some good weather.
After a few days in town, the necessary conditions stacked in our favor, and we took the opportunity to pull off a big line on Rainier. In the Northwest, a full winter of storms on an endless conveyor belt had been pounding the mountain with snow. Now, with an approaching high pressure system, we had a few days of guaranteed sunny weather. So, on Thursday, April 22, we left Paradise in a snowstorm hoping that the forecast would pan out as advertised and once at Camp Muir the weather would break. Typically, we could each do the trip to Muir without the aid of GPS in any conditions. We have over 200 summits of Rainier between the three of us, but this year every landmark is covered in snow, making navigation impossible without the aid of electronics. A quick consult with the GPS was all we needed to find our way to Muir.
Once there, we packed into the tiny RMI hut that normally sleeps two. Poor Andy had to sleep on three coolers—it was either that or the snowy floor. The weather was pretty cold most of the night, so there was no rush for us to start climbing until the sun came up. To our surprise, there was another party climbing that day. They had left about an hour ahead of us, and it was nice to follow their track for the first part of the day. We climbed up towards the Gibralter Ledges route. This gave us a great vantage point of our desired ski route, and I was able to take some pics in case we needed to use them as a quick-reference guide on the descent.
Once we caught up to the other party, we took our turn breaking trail towards the summit. Conditions were great, and we were able to make quick progress to the top. Our total climbing time from Camp Muir was four hours on the dot—not bad for carrying skis on our backs! We spent some time on top checking out the different aspects of the mountain and taking photos of the gargoyle-like features of rime-ice, created as water vapor from the recent storm cycle beating against the mountain and freezing instantly. The wind was howling, so soon after we clicked into our skis and started downhill towards the top of the ice cliff.
The upper part of the mountain skied nicely. Rainier is like a big dome, and the upper reaches aren’t extremely steep. The snow was firm but edge-able. Once we dropped about 1,000 feet, however, the slope angle increased dramatically and the snow became even more firm. At 13,000 feet we could see directly down the glacier to the top of the ice cliff. From here, we were committed, and any slip could result in a long slide off the cliff. Precise, controlled ski turns were necessary, and we skied one at a time in pitches to keep an eye on each other.
The line through the ice cliff was fairly straightforward. We trended gradually right, through an ever-narrowing gap between big rock cliffs and the edge of the ice. The snow conditions steadily improved as we dropped lower on the mountain. In total we skied about 3,500 feet of terrain in what we considered a “no-fall” zone. The stress of all the exposure relented bit-by-bit as we descended, and by the time we exited the ice cliff section we were relaxed enough to fully enjoy the pitch out from under the cliff.
We then threaded our way out of large amphitheater formed by the ice cliff and through a myriad of crevasses onto the benign slopes of the Muir Snowfield. There were several groups of skiers enjoying the fresh powder and sun. We stopped to chat before continuing on our way, and they congratulated us on our journey. The snow was so good from here that we decided to drop below the elevation of the parking lot all of the way to the Nisqually Bridge at 3,500 feet. We knew that this could mean a long wait for a hitchhike back to the car, but the day was going too well to worry about that. Plus, the lure of getting the longest ski run in the “Lower 48” on top of a new route on Rainier was too much to resist.
I think we waited for a total of 15 seconds before a really nice guy from Fort Lewis Army Base gave me a ride back to Paradise to get my car. Our luck was good all day!
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