First Ascent team member, guide and photographer David Morton has topped Everest six times and successfully guided clients up all seven of the Seven Summits—in addition to many other points around the world, such as Mount Rainier in Washington state.
By David Morton
Mount Rainier’s Liberty Ridge is an über-classic for a reason: It is THE line of the Cascade volcanoes to elevate your experience level and get on a more committing climb. Incorporating steep neve, alpine ice, navigation issues, exposure, and relatively heavy loads, this is a climb that feels complete. The four climbers who joined me on a guided climb of the route some weeks ago during the summer solstice were all in for this type of adventure.
Guiding routes that require an elevated commitment level usually attract people eager to push their envelope and see what the next step is all about. I love that drive and enthusiasm. It’s infectious. Clients and the passion they bring to their experience in the mountains still constantly inspire me. They’re newer to it, and that’s always refreshing.
But sometimes that enthusiasm can get one a bit ahead of one’s experience level. What that usually results in is someone feeling out of their element and past their level of comfort. On a climb like Liberty Ridge, the ability to deal with these situations becomes pretty problematic. So we as guides have to be hyper aware of the group and try and “read” where people are in that regard. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Luckily, this didn’t factor into my recent trip in June, as the four guys who showed up … showed up. You know what I mean. Despite an ultra-long summit day and intensely windy conditions at the summit, these guys held strong, and as a result it was a great experience.
Jeff, Mark, John, and Matt (rounding out the creative and unique names were myself—David—and Mike) were coming from the flatlands but ready to ingest a bit of Cascade challenge. Actually, that isn’t exactly accurate. Jeff is from Seattle, so three out of the four were “mountainless” in their local areas. We had some fantastic weather on Day One, which allowed us great views of the upper part of Liberty Ridge and the crater rim as we crossed over St. Elmo’s Pass and traversed the Winthrop Glacier. There were a couple of larger groups camped out on the Winthrop Glacier doing some training in the big beautiful holes that dot that landscape. It was super cool to see the tracks in relatively new snow crisscrossing the terrain in all directions. The first night at Curtis Ridge was calm and spectacular with a glow of orange and red which seemed to last forever.
If you are to camp at Curtis Ridge on Night One as we did, the second day entails getting across the Carbon Glacier and gaining the toe of the ridge in order to ascend to Thumb Rock. On many other occasions I’ve experienced crazy mazes and funky bridges on the Carbon, which always makes for exciting times but certainly slows a party down. With the spectacular conditions of the mountain this season, the Carbon was a near straight run delight getting us quickly to the toe. Gaining the ridge at the base was relatively painless as well, and the crew rallied in the midday sun to reach Thumb Rock by early p.m.
After a good brew-up session and early p.m. dinner, we got down to the business of evaluating the next day’s forecast. The entire second day while ascending to Thumb Rock showed pretty serious spindrift blowing off of the summit ridge from the southwest. Signs were pointing to fairly significant wind speeds higher up, though by being on the north side of the mountain we were protected and comfy. Fifty mph winds at summit were what we were getting for top winds off of the Rainier Recreational Forecast the following day. Hmm … not too cool. In fact, I wasn’t psyched. We knew we’d be carrying over with fairly heavy packs and making it to the summit at midday or later afternoon. Would my crew be totally spent after that long day and not be able to get off of the top making for a bivy in very high winds? How cold would it be to combine with such winds? And would the winds even happen?
We got a bit more beta from some other guides who had made the summit earlier that morning and indicated the winds may not have been as high as predicted. A good sign. Good enough, though? That, combined with a prediction of decent temps, made it a go—but a tentative go.
Our alpine start got us out on the slopes early. Guiding Liberty Ridge entails a great deal of short roping in order to cover the lengthy slopes without having to “pitch out” unreasonable amounts. The short roping allows us to more effectively prevent a fall. But an actual fall is a no-no on Liberty. You need to be totally on top of your skills in terms of your stepping technique on steeper neve in order to climb this route. It’s never technically difficult, but being totally comfortable with your crampon work is essential because a fall of any distance would very likely end up a fall to the base. Jeff, Mark, John, and Matt were aware of this and did a great job keeping their concentration to the job at hand.
After thousands of vertical feet of steeper neve, short steep sections of alpine ice, and many, many hours, we took a long break just before the last section, which tops out on Liberty Cap. Up to here, we’d been protected from winds by being on the north. But throughout the day we’d seen a variety of lenticulars come and go, as well as radical, wind-formed cloud designs coming off Liberty Cap. We regrouped to head into the winds, and head into winds we did. It was nuking on the summit of Liberty Cap, and the view over to the crater rim and Columbia Crest revealed an extremely impressive cloud cap that came up from the southwest and extended down to a tip near Camp Schurman. Wow.
Needless to say, we were the only team still up near the summit. The next many hours found a depleted team having to climb back up almost the entire way to Columbia Crest and then descending to find the route down the Emmons back to camp. Although the boys weren’t happy, they all dug deep to endure the tough last few hours in extreme wind conditions. Two things could have made the situation one in which things can quickly go downhill. One is having cold temperatures in these types of winds. The other is having a team member injured or a team that bonks and can’t find the strength to keep going. These guys may have felt like they were knackered and finished, but they showed a lot of strength getting off the summit in good style.
All in all: a wonderful trip with a good crew of climbers to experience it with. Thanks to each of you guys, and kudos to you all for climbing, what is beyond argument, a classic! (And thanks to Mark and Matt for the photos.)
This was an Alpine Ascents International program, an authorized concessionaire of Mt. Rainier National Park.
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