April 23-25, 2018
Mount Rainier was first circumnavigated on skis May 24-30 1986 by N.L. Kirkland, Terry Pritchards, Dana Rush and Dr. Roy Walters. This adventure was inspired by earlier climbers. Two such adventures are chronicled in Dee Molenaar’s history tome The Challenge of Rainier. In his chapter, ‘Encircling the Mountain’ he quotes Thomas Hardy, who says, “To persons standing alone on the hill during a clear night such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement…but whatever its origin the impression of riding along is vivid and abiding.” Rainier, if nothing else, is an indomitable presence. It’s the 21st most prominent mountain in the world, after all. Even hundreds of miles away, Rainier can be seen. Yet it’s as a climber on her slopes that you become the passenger Thomas Hardy speaks of. With toil and effort, the world is witnessed from above, a percipient view both captivating and humbling. Mountains and hills fall away ’till only the horizon remains. Emptied of everything but sky, there’s most certainly a burgeoning feeling of ‘riding along’.
You know the saying, “It’s better to hang together than to hang separately?” I’ve always thought of suffering like that. To me, “It’s better to suffer together than to suffer separately.” This sentiment is more important than ever when ski-walking around a mountain. By nature, going up and over mountains for a ski traverse is much different than going around one mountain alone. Doing so doesn’t often lend itself to skiing and, without that reward, you may wonder what’s the catalyst for going at all?
The reason for me was two-fold. On one hand, I’ve been attempting to ski circumnavigate the five major volcanoes of Washington. I completed Mount Adams in 2008 (link), Glacier Peak in 2017 (link) and Mount Saint Helens in 2018 (link). On the other hand, it’s a continuation of skiing all the named glaciers in Washington. On Mount Rainier, alone, I had six remaining. Yet coming up with that number wasn’t easy. Exactly how many glaciers the most glaciated peak in the contiguous US had was indecisive. Between recently extinct or near extinct glaciers and misinformation, there wasn’t an exact total. Since my main impetus is to ski and experience as much of Washington as I can, the more the merrier. Using my best judgement, I came up with 29 named glaciers in Mount Rainier National Park. With a hoped for completion of the Rainier Circumnavigation, only Liberty Cap Glacier, would remain.
Plotting trips is apparently a salespersons job. Whenever I’m trying to cajole partners to join me on my wild excursions I’m often accusingly asked, “Is this another one of your glacier project adventures?”
“Yes, but…” Without pause I’ll quickly transition into sales-mode by first setting the stage, “It’s amazing country…the views are out of this world.” More drivel follows, smacking of preaching, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll pull out the big guns, “You have to go here at least once in your life. You’ll never get a better chance.” This will be followed-up with maps and pictures because everyone loves those and they’re so good at hiding the truth that only going there and doing can honestly convey. You may wonder what truth that is? Simple: “This shit’s HARDWORK!”
What pleasantly surprised me, when my pitches finished making their rounds, was that there were four(!) partners who bought what I was selling. What a dream team, too. Between Hannah’s 50+ ascents of Rainier, Drew’s youthful exuberance, and Carl and Jeff’s over enthusiasm for skiing, so much so, that I’ve come to call them “Ski-everydayers,” there was no way I’d be letdown. You see, adventure isn’t only made by doing, but amplified by those you take along. We were destined to have an awesome time no matter the conditions!
What did disappoint me was my camera, and at midnight no less! As I formatted my card, my camera’s SD slot wouldn’t work. After internet sleuthing, I discovered that I needed to pry a broken piece of my SD card out. Relieved, I exclaimed, “That’s it!” Grinning, I set to work and two minutes later, I sat back in my chair, pissed. I had destroyed my SD slot. Oh, sure, the broken piece was out, but the delicate metal tines were bent beyond repair. Without SD cards, I couldn’t take any photos – and I’m a photographer! Fortunately the Nikon D810 has two card slots, the second being for CF cards. Unfortunately, I don’t use them anymore. Only after an hour of searching dusty boxes and drawers did I come up with a pile of previously abandoned CF cards. They ranged from my first 1 gig card I bought thirteen years ago for 130 dollars, to a few larger cards I used in later cameras. Still, while my anxiety had been building, it was soon assuaged. Sure, what CF cards I had were equivalent to a few dozen rolls of film, but that’s okay. Beautiful pictures are bought to life by photographers, aren’t they? More doesn’t mean more. Creative gold is mined from extenuating circumstances, not from thousands of indiscriminate files.
By 11 a.m. we were at Paradise (5400′) with permits in hand (link) and standing around with heavy packs on because we may as well get used to them, right? The oddity of the day was that I wasn’t on telemark skis. This struck me in the gut. For the first time, I was going on a multi-day backcountry tour with an alpine set-up! Yes, way to jump into the 21st century, I know. Yet, I felt like I was abandoning a sport I love, which in all actuality, I wasn’t. In effect, this was a test. While I’ve been a lifelong three-pinner, from the days of wooden skis and leather boots, until now, I wasn’t about to quit after 34 years. They’ve taken me throughout Washington and to more mountains than I can name. But eight pounds is how much weight difference there is compared to my lightest telemark set-up. That’s no joke. Consider, per day, I usually carry two pounds of food when ski mountaineering. So the weight savings is equivalent to 4 days food! Add in balanced free motion while climbing, more comfortable boots, better cramponing, and yes, even more, then I’d be a fool not too, especially on big, spring ski mountaineering trips where weight is most telling.
Yet, I suspect the Telemark Gods heard my blasphemy, and they plotted against me. While I chased my ‘dream team’ whose only gear is ‘5th’ gear, my boots imploded. At most I had six days on them, and there I was, hosed. So much for ‘durable’ being party to the above advantages.
My team, collectively dubbed, ‘team CJ’ (an acronym for Team Circle Jerk), was reconnected with at Camp Muir, whose first permanent structures trace back to 1916. Throughout the day wind had been talking in our ears even more than I do, which was incredibly annoying, as you can imagine. Even so, I showed them my boots and they cringed, laughed and I Voile strapped them together and boasted, “They’re still more solid than my telemark boots!”
The wind continued as we climbed over Cathedral Gap, where views of Little Tahoma (11138′), a leftover of a much larger Mount Rainier, now ash and forgotten, spears the sky unlike a volcano, but an honest-to-God peak. Crumbling rock ledges and pockets of snow make it a more precarious climb than Rainier, but any ascent’s view is a bird’s eye look into the heart of Rainier and her implacable glaciers. Such perspective, gained by two-feet, is only found from this satellite summit and no where else.
Below Little Tahoma, the complexity of the Emmon’s Glacier can be mitigated if you walk the fine line between steeper bulges and tamer accumulation zones. Our route worked it’s way in this manner as best as I could manage. A steep, icy descent from Cathedral Gap led us onto the glacier, and into growing shadows and blowing snow. With trepidation, I eased my way over crevasses and glided quickly around the mountain, side stepping often, and once booting for a few hundred feet before skirting all the way around to Camp Schurman (9460′).
We arrived at dusk, the dull blue shadows further enhanced by blowing snow. Temptation to continue to lower country was high, but winding through a glacier in a rush wasn’t healthy, so there we stayed, digging into the snow in a hurry. Hannah hadn’t brought a tent so she curled up next to the cold rocks of the ranger hut. The rest of us piled into our tents after dinner, and bore the continuing one-way conversation with the wind that NEVER stopped, not even by morning.
My plan for day two was ambitious. We’d made less progress than I’d hoped, due to our late start. The plan was to climb the Tahoma Glacier to the summit the next day, but that required a big push. I woke everyone at just past 7 a.m. It wasn’t much of a wake-up call considering the wind. With little convincing, we decided to move further down the mountain before melting water and cooking breakfast. Coffee repressed skiers aren’t pleased with such maneuvers, but as we crossed the glaciers, winding our way around crevasses and seracs, both beautiful and threatening, an early morning coffee wasn’t needed; there was plenty of stimulation.
Off the glacier and onto Curtis Ridge, we took our break, cooked our meals and relaxed as the wind made it’s final huffs and puffs.
Progress was difficult to maintain as we rounded the corner, with Willis Wall coming into view. Within sight of ever Seattleite, it’s a very lonely place most of the year. Snow covers the access roads and trails and much of the borderlands outside the park are owned by logging companies who restrict access to permit-only, an expensive option few outside hunters take advantage of. In the early 90s my father struck a deal with Champion, one of those logging companies, and managed to gain approval for building a yurt near Golden Lakes, on the west side of the mountain. My father was one of the founders of the Mount Tahoma Scenic Ski Trails Association. As skiers not as interested in cross country skiing, this was our boon. In order to prove feasibility, my father took my mom and us three children, 9 to 11 years of age, on a weeklong ski traverse from Golden Lakes to the head of West Side Road. It would be my very first ski traverse! The hut was built, but would come down only a handful of years later, since not enough skiers visited outside our family.
Coming under Willis Wall is reminiscent of what I imagine the greater ranges in the world have at hand; unencumbered views of massive rock faces that tower high above, formidable and unyielding to man and his desire to tame it, and utterly incorruptible. They are beasts and will remain so. To prove that fact, a massive avalanche roared down Liberty Wall, beyond the toe of Liberty Ridge, and onto the Carbon Glacier, the largest river of ice in the United States, outside Alaska. It’s 700 feet deep! Such a mighty crash of snow was a display of power. We are nothing, just ants scurrying about her slopes and fleas biting at her snowy skin.
In the middle of the Carbon Glacier, another slide bounds down Liberty Wall, this time even bigger. I watch and ponder it’s trajectory, knowing that it is far from me, but still fearing it’s barred teeth. This is no caged animal. It’s wild and free.
With a renewed understanding, I reined my eyes and turned my skis ahead, sweeping across the glacier to meet the others already in pursuit of the far rim where a 500 foot, hot climb led us to the Russell Glacier, and over the shoulder of Ptarmigan Ridge. On the way, I pressed Hannah about her summit climb of this ridge, solo, with skis, and she told me of her harrowing moment during an ascent up a rock step, unroped, with her skis knocking on the mountain. I love the story. It reminded me of other stories, those of friends who pioneered the first ski tracks down this serac and rock strewn route. I much preferred that imagining to reality, especially nowadays. My days of knocking on Rainier’s bedchamber is over.
As we rounded the corner and saw the Mowich further ‘reliving’ wasn’t to be denied. A camp, high on the ridge, was one of the few I had ever built in the Cascades, especially since it breaks our wilderness tenets, and that most important of one – to leave the land as it is or better than. My best friend Ben and twin brother Josh built it at 19 or 20 just before we attempted to ski the Central Mowich Face and snag it’s first descent. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. We came upon the ice on a traverse of what’s known as the ‘variation’. We decided to ski from there. I later returned in 2005, but once again retreated, only this time my friend Sky Sjue skied the route, alone, crossing the variation in a side slip I still remember watching, feeling quite inadequate, as his skis found purchase, finally, on the main face. It was a harrowing moment and I was glad to have watched it from the safety of the glacier.
Memories evaporated as I skied down to the North Mowich Glacier. It’s often melted, due to it’s southern exposure and later in the season offers one of the best boulder-bashing, rock bowling alleys anywhere. You better have your game on before going here when snowless! Fortunately we got to enjoy wonderful turns instead.
Easy ski travel cast us most of the way across the glacier. From there, a climb to the Edmunds Glacier and especially the South Mowich Glacier took more time. Too many distractions and stolen views left us partaking in more skintrack pauses and full-on breaks than necessary, but never more than desired. To have another day or two just to gawk and ski would be highly encouraged. Rushing through this zone was a shame, and every look over my shoulder confirmed it. Perhaps, though, it’s better to be left wanting than to be content. You never want the mountains to become pedestrian.
A slushy, but enjoyable descent put us on the South Mowich Glacier at ~7200′ and was followed by a final climb to 8500′. By then we were tired and ready to curl up in our beds. To further convince us, the wind returned with granules of snow in tow and bit at our faces, like millions of mosquitoes. Hopes for a pleasant night were quickly evaporating, but as we dropped onto a flat area on the Puyallup Glacier (8300′), the wind dissipated and the mountain blushed in a flash of pink that was gone as quickly as it came. Alpenglow is never consistent. It comes when it comes. Mayhap only the Sun knows how to pluck at this mountains shyness, so as to play such brilliant colors across her many faces, including the one that rose above us, appropriately named, Sunset Amphitheater.
That night, I slept like the dead, and as morning came, the snow’s refrozen surface was an unappealing sight, but in no way unexpected. It actually saved effort, when at 10 a.m., we scurried to the edge of the Tahoma Glacier like we had wings instead of skis, even managing to gain altitude on our traverse.
The southern face was already softening and provided great skiing. By then the time had come to decide if we were to stay and summit the Tahoma Glacier, or go. Breaking such a fun group up, as Hannah and Drew only had three days, seemed wrong, so we chose to continue. Leaving ‘The Mountain’ behind was regretful, but beer and food were even more convincing. Sometimes you’ve just had enough incredible-everythings that more is, well, vulgar.
On the map, the western through southern aspects of Rainier appear steeper for traversing. In all actuality it proved much easier to negotiate than I expected, especially with snow only an inch or two deep. Glacier Island was more than accommodating. Wrapping above Pinnacle Peak, the same. Eventually we rounded the corner of the Kautz Glacier. In sight faster than we could’ve hoped appeared the mountainous ridge lines of the Tatoosh and Goat Rocks. More importantly, within our clutch was our starting point, Paradise. Somehow just seeing the end feels so-damn-satisfying. I can’t help but grin like an idiot, as if I were already done.
The final descent onto the Nisqually Glacier brought us into sight of people for the first time since we’d left Muir. A wild rush of skis and turns followed as we flew downward. By then the snow under my feet was mush, but ‘Team CJ’ wasn’t shying away from hoots and hollers, no matter the conditions. Excitement was in the air as only a downward, gravitational spiral through winter’s leftovers can provide, at least to the likes of us, addicts all.
As I broke track back to Glacier Vista, we paused for a moment to appreciate reconnecting with our wayward tracks from day’s previous, but no more. Adventures coming to an end can be satisfying, but in some ways can leave you wanting. Wanting to stay, wanting to continue, wanting to experience, but no mater the wanting, an end is the beginning of something new, and any arrow of adventure is always magnetized toward new and exciting paths, if nothing else. People like us, all we have to do is let our feet take command and the rest is elementary.
A handful of minutes later, boots hit pavement and after a few hundred feet of walking, our heavy, untenable loads hit the ground. Beers and chips appeared, feet are freed from boots and gear scattered as we relaxed like dragons on our hoards. Nothing was about to move us. Satisfaction and contentedness were on display. I’m reminded of another quote by Thomas Hardy in which he stated, “Happiness is but a mere episode in the general drama of pain.” He may be right. Suffering for me, at least, is the currency of life. Without it, much of the happiness I’ve enjoyed would’ve never been, not all the glaciers I’ve seen and appreciated, nor a circumnavigation of Rainier with such an awesome and amazing crew of friends. Anything good, usually takes effort, and effort by nature, isn’t often easy, or painless. And, as aways, “It’s better to suffer together than to suffer separately.”
Thanks for visiting!!! If you’d like to support my glacier project either check my book out (link), buy a print (link), or let me know your thoughts by commenting at the bottom of this page or messaging me via email. Thanks all!