“Um….Sir- are you going to Seattle today?”
It’s the Delta gate agent- annoyed, everyone else is on the plane except for me and my traveling companion, Tyson, and he’s nowhere to be seen. We arrived at the airport early, paid our fees for the extra baggage, and answered a few questions for the curious as to why we were traveling with skis in mid- July while it’s pushing 100 degrees in SLC.
Time is tight for both of us and if we miss this flight, our plans of skiing the Triple Crown of Mounts Hood, Adams and Rainier might have to wait until next time. Various miscommunications lead to this airport separation, and as I dial on my phone, here comes our trip leader- running down the concourse. A mix up of terminals and a TSA agent victoriously confiscating Tyson’s Leatherman resulted in the glare of contempt from the aforementioned Delta agent. He hurriedly closes the door to the jetway behind us. Not a great start.
We celebrate our escape from the heat of Utah by ordering a couple of beers, and start to enjoy the flight. Soon enough, the plane passes directly by and below the summit of Rainier on approach into Seattle. We gaze and are amazed at the snow cover that is plastered to the magnificent volcano, so much snow for this time of year- the result of an above average spring for precip- even in these parts. “Welcome to the Great Northwet” Tyson says with a grin.
We collect the rental car and supplies, including a styro cooler full of hoppy Northwest microbrews and a 12er’ of Rainier thrown in for good luck, and hit the road for Adams. It’s rush hour in Seattle, but we manage to leave the city quickly, gaining stoke by the unobstructed views of the great white volcano that we just flew over. Our plan is to drive to Adams tonight, sleep for a few hours and go for an alpine start – up at 4 am- up and down in a day. From there our plan is somewhat fluid and weather dependent, but we’ll most likely head for Rainier for a 2 day ski and climb, and then south again for a day climb and ski of Hood. Our companions who will meet us on Rainier are climbing Hood as we’re climbing Adams. We’ll all meet up tomorrow, and we’ll be able to collect the beta on Hood. The forecast looks high and dry and stable- perfect temps for corn snow in July.
Our route to Adams is convoluted, we know the road is long and winding, and we understand there is 9 miles of dirt. It turns out to be closer to 25 miles of dirt- this combined with a missed turn due to fatigue gets us to the Cold Springs campground- pushing past midnight. I crawl in the back seat for a few hours of fetal position sleep, while Tyson opts for the ground outside. His knock on the window comes much too early, and the early dawn light reveals what our late arrival concealed- several touring parties hustling out of camp to ensure the nabbing of the prime corn snow window.
We soon are out and climbing, first on dirt for a mile or so, and then at the snowline. A good frozen surface bodes well for the warm afternoon to come. We make good time, passing many of the early risers, ascending nearly 6700 feet to our objective, the Southwest Chutes, starting from Piker’s Peak or the false summit. There are perhaps 12 or so people milling around here at 10,650, going to the true summit does not yield much in the way of fall-line skiing, and it’s getting warm. We opt not to wait around, and get to the corn harvest. The SW Chutes drop away fast and steep, with great exposure and views that include the ashen grey mass of St. Helens, and the symmetrical cone of Hood. The corn snow is a perfect inch or two of granular melt on top of an easily carved crust. And it drops -over 4000 vertical feet at a constant 40 degree pitch. We whoop and holler as we leapfrog each other down the slope, leaving our signatures on the massive untracked and billiard smooth face. A run to be remembered.
We regroup at the bottom of the main pitch, and begin traversing for a long trek back around the peak to the car. There’s still some good vert to be had in shorter sections, and we happen upon a slope that appears to be covered in ash or a dark dust. “The black snow,” Tyson says, “it really is quite good skiing”. This goes against my knowledge of dirty spring snow from the Wasatch, but it’s fast, smooth and easy turning. The contrast of our tracks is visible for miles, as we’ll see later on from the valley below.
We regain our camp/car after a long traverse, and beat a hasty path for the Town of Trout Lake and a refuel at the local burger shack. We’ve got a ways to go to get to Rainier, but the high pressure is stable and we’re pumped after skiing Adams- after a dubious start to the trip, things are going smoothly.
The drive back towards Rainier is beautiful in the afternoon sun. The forests are lush and the streams are raging with the deep snowpack melting rapidly. We debate taking a break for a refreshing dip after our earned ski day, but we want to avoid another late night with an early start, so we press on. Suddenly out of the dense forest, Rainier reveals herself. Massive- if only for a glance. Rainier is the most prominent mountain in the lower 48, and has a topographical prominence greater than K2 in the Karakoram. The summit is at 14,411 feet, and is thought to have topped 16,000 feet at one time, only to be knocked down by eruption nearly 5,000 years ago. It’s great conversation, but right now we need to get horizontal and get some rest. We make camp in the national park at the beautiful Ohanapecosh campground, along the river of the same name, amongst the old growth forest of red cedars and Douglas firs. We sort gear, and get to bed early.
Our companions for the next leg of the expedition rouse us early. Jim from SLC works at Kuhl Clothing and is spending the summer in Hood River. Hunter also lives and plays in Hood River. Bob is the manager and chef at the Wildcat Chalet in Alta, and is also spending the summer in Hood. They had a great day on Hood yesterday, and are ready to get at it. They charge ahead of us to collect the necessary permits and gear up. Tyson and I enjoy some coffee and breakfast, and are on our way to Paradise to meet them.
The snowline is all the way down to the parking lot at Paradise (5400 feet) on July 17th. It snows a lot here, back in’ 71-’72 it snowed 1122 inches- 93.5 feet. Today it’s warm, stable and beautiful. We’re in shorts, and on skins right out of the parking lot. Our objective is to climb the Nisqually Glacier, camp near the Wilson Glacier the first day, ascend the Fuhrer Finger, and then onto the upper Nisqually to the summit and back down via the Finger to Paradise on the second day. The descent is essentially the longest you can make in the lower 48- 9000 vertical feet. It’s possible to go down the Nisqually an additional 2000 feet, but the exit and terrain is impractical for skiing. The climbing is quite pleasant and we set an easy pace- it’s a long way to go, and it’s warm and slushy by 11 a.m.
We reach the buttress below the Wilson Headwall after gaining about 3500 feet and make camp. Jim sets about to melting snow, while we all refuel and relax the legs. We’ve all packed one of the cans of Rainier in our bags, and enjoy a toast to our fine weather and summit fortunes. Bob- god love him-pulls a gigantic chub of salami, a huge hunk of sharp parmesan, and a UFO sized loaf of sourdough bread out of his pack! He then proceeds to produce a pint of Old Crow and we settle into camp-the view is spectacular!
Our relaxing afternoon soon changes as the wind begins to pick up, and clouds begin to race by at our 9000 foot camp. The pace intensifies, and it appears we’re in for a change of weather. I hit the tent, with my earplugs in, as the wind starts to howl. Our plan is a 2 am wake up; our high pressure is blowing away.
Tyson rousts me at 4 am; it appears he’s been up most of the night, checking the weather. The sky is clear, but it’s blowing a steady 30 mph, and he’s been waiting to see if she’ll lay down- but she isn’t. We gear up nervously, debate what it’s doing above us, rope up and head out. We cross the Wilson Glacier, and begin the boot up the 40 degree Fuhrer. The snow is hard and fully supportable, the sunrise spectacular. Adams glistens in the morning sun over our shoulder and Hood and St. Helens also reflect the early rays. The chute goes on forever, and eventually we’re back on the Nisqually, facing giant seracs and crevasses. We find our route, traversing and crossing, heading upward. The crevasses are gaping and deep, some appear bottomless…the top is not in sight, the mountain goes on forever…
We maintain a steady pace, pausing briefly every hour or so to refuel. The wind is not as bad as earlier, as we seem to be on the lee side of the mountain. It’s getting late, past noon, but we continue the push for the top. At 13,000 feet, Hunter is done-no more up. He sets up a station on the exposed slope, and takes his helmet off, thinking it’s secured to his pack, it isn’t and it’s off and at the bottom of a crevasse now for eternity. The remaining 4 of us push for the summit, pausing shortly above Hunter to peer into a crevasse that returns a feeling of vertigo, but it’s easily stepped over. We charge to the summit crater, and climbing out of the crater it hits us full force- the wind- 50, 60, 70 mph? Knock you to the ground wind…our stay on top is brief, we snap a few photos, shake hands, and its skis on and down time.
If you’ve ever heard the term ‘variable conditions’ to describe the skiing, that’s what you get when descending 9,000 vertical feet on Rainier. Solid ice, sastrugi, penitentes (a foot high), sun cups, perfect corn, sluffing slush, rockfall, creamy slush- we pick our way down through it all, including a 3 foot jump over a crevasse. Hunter said he could hear us sliding on the ice a thousand feet above him on the descent. We hustle through the Finger, as the warming sun is sending down rocks, and the slush is sliding away underneath us. We get back to camp, exhausted, and its decision time. Tyson and I have been discussing, do we go to Hood, or stay here for another night and go for another summit and a Kautz descent?
I make the call. I’m whipped; I want a hot meal served to me, and a bed. Let’s get off of the mountain, and we’ll figure out tomorrow if we want to go for Hood. We pack up and get out, still 3500 feet down to go. Back at Paradise, a cold beer never tasted so good. We part ways with the team, and head for food, hot shower and bed. We’re both spent; Tyson certainly had a lack of sleep last night. We get a hotel room and are out quick.
The next day we wake to overcast and drizzly skies. The weather window is closed, and our ski time is over. We decide to head to the airport and catch an early flight back; it’ll be good for both of us to get home a day early. We hustle to the airport and make the arrangements, check our bags and pay the necessary change fees. We can be on the next flight, in 30 minutes. We get to the gate together, but they won’t let Tyson on. I got the last seat, and he was misinformed by the agent that he would be on this flight. He can go in 6 hours. He shrugs and heads for the bar.
Of course- just like trying to get here, this is how we travel together in airports; we can get up and down 15,000 feet no problem, but try to get us on a plane…