First Ascent and RMI guide Seth Waterfall is no stranger to the fierce and fickle weather on Mt. Rainier. But Waterfall received a wintertime reminder of the intensity of Washington’s tallest peak while leading a skill-building Winter Expedition Skills Seminar on the mountain this month. The RMI course involves a six-day stay at Camp Muir that preps climbers for the skills they will need and the harsh conditions they might experience on even bigger peaks such as Denali. This is his report from a midwinter week at 10,000 feet. -EB Editor
Mount Rainier is an elusive climb in winter. I’ve attempted it eight times and been successful only once, even though my summer record is better than 85 percent. It’s not that the mountain is completely different this time of year; it’s just that there are a lot more things that stack up against you in winter. The short days the cold temps the increased frequency of storms; these factors and more mean that you’ll need a little luck to pull off a summit.
Last year, in February, I led a group that was able to pull of an ascent in relatively benign weather. It was still a major undertaking but with optimal conditions our entire party made the top. It was great. This season’s February climb looked to be much the same. We had an extremely experienced group of climbers and a good forecast, which definitely got the guides very psyched for a possible climb.
As we headed to Camp Muir our first day on the mountain we got a taste of high winds but everything settled down as we moved into camp for the night. We awoke the next day to beautiful blue skies and very light wind. We then had a great day of training on the slopes around Camp Muir. The only damper to the day was a shift in the forecast from good weather to a series of weakening fronts approaching from the Oregon Coast.
Well, a weak front still packs a punch at 10,000 feet in the Cascades and the next morning I awoke to find the door of the hut completely snowed in! The light precip that was called for proved to be about eight inches of snow with a steady 40 mph wind. That’s plenty to create huge drifts on our little ridge. We spent the next two days doing what training we could do outside while getting slammed with high winds and blowing snow. The fronts moved in at about 10-hour intervals with one clear period right in the middle of our second-to-last night. Bad timing and much too short of a window for a winter climb.
As we pulled out of Muir on our last day, the guides all navigated by GPS and pre-placed wands in a total white out. We punched through the bottom of the clouds about an hour before we hit the parking lot, which allowed us to have a nice walk back to the van. After that it was time for a celebration meal and while we couldn’t say cheers to a summit we could click glasses for a great week spent on the mountain.
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