Monday, July 17, 2006

This past weekend I had an interesting attempt on Rainier via the Kautz Glacier route. We drove up Thursday night and car camped just inside the park. Friday morning the team gathered at the visitor's center and started up the mountain around 8:30am. The weather was ideal for climbing - scattered clouds while we were low to keep us cool and clearer skies as we moved higher. The glacier was in great condition with only a few crevasses open and we could see most of the route ahead of us. We figured the climb was pretty much a green light.

However, as we approached our high camp around 11,000 feet the winds started to pick up. By the time we reached high camp the gusts were strong enough to make you lose your balance. We selected our camp sites and started building rock walls to protect our tents. After about 2 hours we had our tents pitched and guyed out as best as we could. We estimated the gusts were approaching 50 mph. Here's a short video of what it looked like.

As the evening went on, the gusts became stronger and more sustained. Melting snow for water was difficult as our stoves kept blowing out regardless of how well we protected them from the wind. Cooking in our tents wasn't a good option either because the gusts would nearly flatten them at times. After about 2 more hours we managed to melt enough snow to cook a little food and give us each about 1 liter of water. At that point we decided reaching the summit the next day would be impossible in such winds. We didn't have enough water and the crux of the climb - 2 pitches of up to 60 degree snow and ice - was still ahead of us.

We took shelter in our tents around 9pm with plans to see what the wind was like at 2am. Nobody really slept much. You could hear the wind coming like a jet engine in the distance then 20-30 seconds later the tents would buckle and twist. Some tents we're literally floating on the wind only being held in place by the guylines. By 2am the wind hadn't changed at all so we decided to wait until 6am and either make an attempt at the summit or bag it altogether. At 6am the winds were still giving us a beating so we emerged from our tents, broke camp and headed back down the mountain.

Even though we failed to summit, it was a learning experience. 5 of us on the climb are going to Denali next spring. The winds there can be brutal. Everything takes more effort in high winds and we have to take that into consideration. Clearly canister stoves do not work well at elevation and in strong winds. Tents need to be guyed out to the max. My 3 season REI Half Dome took a beating but emerged unscathed because I went overboard with guylines. Another group was also up there with 3 "bombshelter" Mountain Hardware tents which didn't fare so well because they weren't guyed out properly. One would have been blown off the mountain if our group hadn't stopped it.

Anyway it was a long, tiring two days on Rainier but the Kautz Glacier route looks amazing. I definitely plan to go back next year, perhaps earlier in the season with skis. With the right conditions you could ski from high camp at 11,000 all the way down to the visitors center at 5,400.

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