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Mount Rainier, Disappointment Cleaver Route, July 21-23, 2011

Over the July 4th weekend, six members of SAC (SAC Team 6) attempted to climb the Disappointment Cleaver route on Mt Rainier, only to be turned back near the summit by a sudden storm that covered the top of the mountain in whiteout conditions. Despite not reaching the summit we all considered the climb a success in light of all we learned from the experience. Even before we started down though, we were making plans and considering when would be the next opportunity to try for the summit again.

On July 21nd, three members of SAC Team 6 : Peter Urban, Simon Boyd and Mark Barnard, would once again travel to the Northwest’s highest peak to take care of 1400’ of unfinished business. We wanted to go back while the conditions would still be similar and while the frustration of not summiting was still fresh in our memories.

Thursday evening we left after work and drove up to Mt. Rainier National Park to camp at Cougar Rock camp ground so we could be at the Climber’s Registration desk at 6:00 a.m. Friday morning. Unfortunately no park officials showed up at the registration office until 7:30. Having already paid for our passes and not wanting to waste time, we started up the mountain. The weather that morning was anything but promising. Thick clouds shrouded Paradise and a cool, light drizzle was falling. Shortly after starting up the route however, the clouds began to thin and within 45 minutes of climbing, the sun was shining and the air was warm and dry.

Feeling strong and in shape from our previous visit to the mountain and from excellent training in the weeks leading up to the climb, our threesome made excellent time hiking up to Camp Muir. There was even some talk of trying to climb 9000’ in one day, summiting, then descending back to Muir for the night. It took us just over four hours to climb up to Camp Muir, but once there, the talk of a one day epic gave way to reason, some lunch and a nice long nap in the climber’s hut. As is typical for a Friday, “Club Muir” was a beehive of activity. We were lucky to find room in the hut.

After our nice long naps we fixed dinner, melted snow on Mark’s thermo-nuclear-reactor stove (which amazed the other climbers at how fast it worked) we busied ourselves getting our gear ready for an alpine start the next morning. The climber’s hut is a great place to get out of the wind and sunshine, but not the easiest place to sleep. With different groups starting for or coming back from the summit at all hours of the day or night, it’s almost always noisy and busy as climbers melt snow and prep for their climbs. We decided to let the early birds go first and waited until 2:30 a.m. to start our prep for the climb.

The skies were clear and the mountain was perfectly calm when we tied into our alpine rope and started motoring up the mountain. Peter took the lead and set a strong pace through Cathedral Gap and up onto the Ingraham snow field. We were making excellent time until the only mishap for the climb occurred. We stopped on a rocky outcropping to take some photos in the morning light and to put on our sunglasses. In the attempt to get one of our team member’s sunglasses out of his pack for him, his GPS device fell out and slowly rolled down the rocks towards the edge of the ridge. “Stop rolling! No, are you kidding?” We watched as it slowly rolled, almost stopping several times, before it slid over the edge of the loose rock and out of view.

We set an anchor and belayed Peter as he bravely went looking for the device. Unsuccessful, Peter came up and Simon took a turn at looking, but to no avail. The rocks were loose and sketchy and a huge crevasse opened just down the slope below the ridge, so the decision was made to let the mountain gods have the GPS and we started back up the mountain. Due to the snow melt on the Disappointment Cleaver, a route up its side had been blazed in the snow, which we decided to follow rather than negotiate the rocks in our crampons. This is a huge mountain, and once past the cleaver the route is a series of continual switchbacks that eventually take you to the summit. We recognized the spot at which we had turned around on our previous attempt and saw the wisdom of turning around when we did. The area is fairly steep, exposed and has several crevasses in close vicinity. In the clear light of our cloudless day we made our way steadily past these dangers and up to the rim of the summit’s crater. Just a walk across the caldera and up to 14,410’ took us to the top of the Northwest! Amazing!

A fabulous panorama could be seen for hundreds of miles in all directions. To the north, Mt Baker, Mt Shuksan, and Glacier Peak with the North Cascades to the east of them. To the south, Mt Adams, Mt Hood, Mt. Saint Helens and Mt Jefferson could all be easily seen.

After some high fives and a few photos we descended down out of the stiff wind and to an area of fumerols where the snow had melted and we could rest out of the wind on some rocks. Thanks to Peter’s strong, steady pace we made it to the summit in six hours, even with the hour we took looking for the lost GPS. Here we ate, drank and savored our success.

In a few minutes though, we pulled on our summit packs, grabbed our ice axes and started making our way slowly down the mountain. By now the sun had warmed the snow to where it was soft and slushy and at times a little difficult to manage on the steep sections of the route. Once again we managed our rope through the innumerable switchbacks. We figured going and coming we probably negotiate hundreds of switchbacks-that’s a lot of rope management!

In about as much time as it took us to ascend, we descended back to Club Muir, which by now was as busy as down town Seattle. There were people everywhere, but all we wanted to do was melt some snow, eat and crawl into our sleeping bags to take a well deserved nap.

Sunday the 24th was Mark’s birthday and he wanted to head back down the mountain Saturday evening so he could be home with his family the next day. Most kindly, Peter and Simon, though tired, went along with Mark’s desires and all made it quickly down the mountain and drove back home to Oregon very early in the morning on the 24th.

Mt Rainier is a huge, amazing mountain. It is a magnificent place to climb. We wonder why more SAC members haven’t climbed it? If there are newer SAC members that would like to climb Mt Rainier in the future, I’m sure other “SAC Team 6” members will be going back later this summer and in seasons to come. If you dream of climbing Rainier though, you might want to cut your crampon’s teeth on some of Oregon’s smaller peaks to learn your glacier travel, crevasse rescue, and rope management skills before taking on this giant of a mountain. It will test your knowledge, experience and endurance to your limits, but it is well worth the effort.

A very special thanks to Mike Wilson for his months of organizing, and leading the efforts to climb Rainier. If the weather had been better on the first SAC climb of Rainier this summer he certainly would have been on the top with us. He was with us in spirit. Thanks Mike, we couldn’t have done it without your efforts.

Peter Urban Simon Boyd MarkBarnard


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