Liberty Ridge

Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier's North face definitely deserves the title of "classic". On June 15-17, Phil, Marcus and I lucked out and has three perfect days of weather and climbing on Rainier.

To start out, Phil had the "zany" idea that we should cache a couple beers in Glacier Basin for the return trip. An excellent idea! So three beers were slogged up to a secret tree stash and left for later fun and games (see below).

When we arrived at the Ranger station on Thursday morning, we were (to our surprise) the last permittable group for a Thursday to Saturday climb! We had filled up the rest of the spots on Curtis ridge and Thumb rock. Odd we though, isn't this mid-week climbing??? Upon driving to the parking lot at White River, we met four climbers who were also intending to do the ridge. They seemed to have pretty big packs, so we broke out Phil's scale to weigh ours, and then theirs. Phil Marcus and I were all clocked in at around 40 lbs with 3+ days of fuel and food. Their group of four had a range of experience that was proportional to pack weight. This ranged from about 45 to 55 pounds! (FULL Mountainsmith pack!) These people were mysteriously still on the mountain when we got back to the car. (Too bad it was raining the next day!)

Dave at St. Elmo's Pass. Photo: Phil Fortier

Marcus proudly showed off his new "hydration system," I think he called it, that was a 3 Liter platypus. Phil and I both thought it was cool, but warned him of the tube freezing that occurs at altitude. Undaunted, he carried it up the trail. Our delightful first day was spent climbing up to St. Elmo's pass out of Glacier Basin, and then dropping down onto the Winthrop Glacier for a long traverse to the Curtis ridge camp at 7,200 feet.

Traversing lower Curtis Ridge. Photo: Phil Fortier

This went pretty quick (5 or so hours) and the campsites were very nice level dirt spots with awesome views of Liberty Ridge and the Willis Wall. After chatting with a cool Father n' Son team from Denver, we headed out onto the infamous Carbon Glacier for a reconnaissance of the route up to the ridge. A short route through the massively creaky icefall was pretty easy to find, but we didn't go any further due to the mushy snow and lazy-factor.

Taking in the awesome North face of Mt. Rainier and the Carbon glacier. Photo: Phil Fortier

Hans n Frans hanging out at camp. Photo: Marcus Collins

After much haggling, day two began at 5:30 am. I must say, Marcus and Phil were right in wanting to get up so early for the seemingly short and not-sun exposed climb to thumb rock. I say this because there are two flat spots at thumb rock, we were first to get there that day, and we got spot #2. The crossing of the Carbon was pretty easy, only involving a few sometimes tricky snow bridges and a little routefinding. Once at the base of the ridge we climbed a short rock step to gain a direct start at the 30-40 degree slopes.

Starting up the ridge. Photo: Phil Fortier

When climbing the lower sections of the ridge, it is probably best to bypass all rock bands on the right (west) side of the ridge. We went left (east) once and regretted it due to the ton of mushy sun-warmed snow that we encountered. But after regaining the ridge crest and crossing back onto the shaded (west) side, we climbed up the awesome 1,000 foot frozen snow slope directly up to thumb Rock. It took us about four and a half hours from camp at 7,200 to get to Thumb rock at 10,760. It is possible to do this in a long day, however it means a long day (10+ hours) and a lot of strenuous elevation gain (about 6,000 feet). We decided that we would avoid AMS at every chance we could, thus doing two leisurely approach days.

The narrow camp spot #2 at Thub Rock. Photo: Phil Fortier

Avalanche on Willis Wall. Photo: Phil Fortier

From Thumb Rock up is were the real cool climbing begins. Because the "ice step" route up the main gully for the usual route was totally out of condition, we opted for the exposed 40 slope to the left of the rocks above camp. Leaving first from camp at 1 am, we were the pioneers of the route for the day. Phil even admitted after the climb that he thought of himself as a new age Ome Diaber!

Phil climbing up out of the darkness below the Black Pyramid.

So on we climbed through the night up frozen and very hard snow until we reached a series of rock bands that seemed to span the whole slope. After taking about which way we thought we should go (all route descriptions were left at home... on purpose. yeah. sure!) we found some tracks leading strait up. The rock bands were surmounted fairly easily with a few cool 4th class moves up a step and then traversing left towards the infamous steep slope below the Black Pyramid. After a quick break at a good potential emergency bivi (about 12,000 ft.) we headed on to the 50 ice slope. The snow was in great shape, and we cruised on up the section of a couple hundred feet with only planting a few pickets, as Beckey would say, for safety.

Steep ground past the Black Pyramid. Photo: Phil Fortier

At 13,000 ft there is a good rest, and so we stocked up on Gu and energy bars and looked at the very near and impressive ice cliff. At this point some un-named-permit-less-people-that-i-knew-with-few-manors passed us and headed up to the first pitch of the ice cliff. Phil lead the short step which only involved about 10 feet of very steep ice, and then low angled water ice above.

Following the crux step. Photo: Phil Fortier

I say water ice because of the weird condition that the surface of the snow was in. For some reason the slope was covered with this brittle globular network of water ice. Very similar to big ice-cubes, but hard to walk on without kicking all hell loose on the people below. So we endured the usual amount of ice falling off of people on the pitch above us without complaint. Above the step there is one last steep slope to climb up over the 'schrund and onto Liberty Cap's summit.

The party behind us just below the summit of liberty cap. Photo: Phil Fortier

This team a head of us (now earning their few-mannors title) topped out and starting sending down just torrents of these ice blocks. After our team and another team screaming obscenities at the top of our lungs for them to stop moving, AND hearing a reply, the torrents continued. Luckily the "kicking" party got off the summit and descended the Emmonds before the other party being pegged with us was able to "talk" with them. Talk about potential blows at 14 K!

Phil taking the last few steps to the top.

Ahh the summit, at last! All of the major exposure and fear were left behind and were were in a flat, windless and warm world. It was so nice in fact, that we all (minus Phil) said hello to Mr. Hankey. As we all would soon find out, Phil would see Mr. Hankey later! The route in all took us 7 hours, with some waiting for other parties. If we didn't have to wait it may have been a little under 6 and a half. The descent of the Emmonds Glacier was delightfully uneventful. Seeing as we had left the map in the car, and the route descriptions in the books, we were happy to follow "the highway" down the route. One interesting thing to note was the people coming up's start time, especially those who though 7am sounded good!

After making it down to Sherman and talking with Dee, one of the seasonal climbing rangers, we headed towards the Inter-glacier for the descent and a little "fun". Marcus showed Phil and I a fancy trick the he and his brother Nathan invented for speedy descents. Still roped up, Marcus in the middle and Phil and I on his left and right sides, he took off down the hill running. Soon Phil and I were reaching warp speed down the glissade tracks. Then disaster. A unexpecting team was sauntering the slow way up the glacier. Here we were, three guys spanning 50 meters of the slope and traveling at about 15 mph right at them! Essentially we were the dental floss and they were the plaque! Well, real disaster was actually avoided due to the lessing of the slope angle at the team's position. The disaster was that we looked like total yokels! This turned out to be true and only the begining of such activites.

And the beer Cache... Photo: Phil Fortier

The beer was then located in the melting-out-secret-hill-side-pub and we relaxed in the sun with our beers and successful climb. Liberty Ridge was spectacular, exposed, remote, challenging, strenous, and fufilling. What better way is there to spend three sunny days than climbing and spending time with friends.