A college roommate told me years ago that I should stay away from routines, because “they make you old.” Though I’ve found that advice quite accurate for some aspects of life, I argue that some routines are very healthy. One example I offer is a travel pattern I’ve tried to uphold the last couple years, including annual trips to Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, the Pacific Northwest and New England. I’ll spare the beleaguered reader another disquisition on my love of New England and recount this spring’s trip northward. As Jeff and I considered domestic outings to complement our international objectives this year, Ranier’s Ptarmigan Ridge provided a happy triple whammy: an excuse to continue the PNW narrative, a summit of an iconic American peak and a technical[ish], [mostly] full value outing involving a smattering of mountaineering disciplines – snow, rock, ice, glacier and altitude.
The conditions report and weather forecast implied Jeff and I had built up a Karma reserve: People from southern California were actually headed to Seattle for good weather, with multiple people on the flight LAX à SEA giddy with excitement at the Evergreen State’s temperatures and expected abundant weekend sunshine. We met at the airport, retrieved a most worthy horseless chariot, and were bound for the White River trailhead by 2230. We joked that real men would get to the business right away – not bother with just a couple hours’ bivy in the parking lot prior to a slogging approach to high camp. After a long week of work, though, I insisted on my dainty beauty sleep.
It had only been a couple months since Jeff and I parted ways at JFK after our Patagonia excursion, but catching up helped pass the many miles of approach en route to the glacier business on Ranier’s north side. We were stomping out miles by 0600, and topping out St. Elmo pass a little more than two hours later. We quickly learned we were fighting the clock – with June’s high sun angle, warm air temps, and a volcano with a still-young snowpack, every minute wasted meant we were getting closer and closer to post-holing our sanity away, so we made haste, reaching Curtis Ridge by 10:30 after leveraging a most casual bootpack set by our predecessors. And then the snow got soft…really soft, leaving us plunging knee+ deep into the slop for the next three hours. No matter, we turned the final approach buttress to a refreshing north wind and northerly aspect, and the efficient boot-packing returned, followed by some talus hopping and arrival at our high camp at our designated 3pm napping hour.
After some snow melting, landscaping and gear drying from the slush fest, it was high time for first dinner and a most righteous nap. Front-country napping is glorious enough, but throw in gorgeous views of a fully glaciated mountain, spectacular under-cast conditions in the valleys below and an artist’s canvas of clouds around sunset and your nap just got way better. Throw in the white noise of seracs cascading off the higher cliff bands at a safe distance and you have a recipe for something magical. Waking up for second dinner, we got the last glimpses of our route, snapped some memorable sunset views, packed for the ascent the next day and called it a night.
Particularly noteworthy of the approaching were two things: the pair of uber-light randonee skiers scoping out Liberty Ridge for an ascent a couple days later, and the ubiquitous presence of helicopters. For hours there was the smaller A-star type park service bird hovering over Lib Ridge…and then came the bigger Chinook, which spent a long time hovering over the same area. We had heard a couple of rangers headed up LR, so we figured so much air attention was for a training exercise, but still something didn't seem right. As we later found upon our return to civilization, something was most definitely ‘not right.’ In the most fatal day on Rainier since the 80’s, a party of six – two guides, four clients – from Alpine Ascents had perished in an apparent rock fall or avalanche. May they rest in peace.
The 1AM wakeup call wasn’t too bad, and we were packed and moving before our 2am estimate. We again made haste, this time crossing the fallout zone from the ice cliffs above, and booted our way under headlamp up the lower snowy ramps of the route. What followed was a recurring theme: Perfect conditions comprised of stable, virgin, consolidated and excellently-packable snow [we were the first on route this season, so the booter was ours], followed by dawn – with her fingertips of rose – at the base of our chosen variation: The ice cliff top out.
As we reached the prominent buttress marking variation-decision-time, the dialogue was memorable.
“We could commit to the rock variation, but given how much snow there is, I’d hate say we just climbed steep-ish snow for the summit and a one-move wonder.”
“Let’s at least look at it, it’s right over there, and we have plenty of time.”
“That looks f*ing awesome.”
“Seriously, this is happening.”
The ice variation was a winner – there are a number of route options, and we chose the most direct to the Liberty Cap Glacier. It took our three screws well after a crampon adjustment, and a double-picket belay on top – my first – got us ready for the summit slog. Though the hike to Liberty Cap is beautiful, it is long, and left both of us desiring a more sustained technical ascent to the summit; in stepped Jeff with his nostalgia of pitch after pitch of tool-swinging heroics on the LR one year prior. After a couple stops to refuel, we were melting snow on the Cap by 10:30, and contemplating a true top-out of Ranier’s Columbia Crest…summits do matter, someone once said. Knowing how quickly the snow conditions were deteriorating, however, we passed– Jeff having been there before, and my vowing to return to that part of the mountain properly – on a pair of skis.
I’ll substitute elaboration of the cursing and mental breakdown of not descending a North American Volcano in June on skis in favor of the awe and fright derived from the crevasses of the Emmons glacier. After nibbling some dried mango on the summit, you might think things would chill out while you cruise to the car…”Dale, time to rope up.”
“Yes, for real.”
The Emmons - like many of the glaciers gracing Ranier’s northerly flanks – is an angry one. I’m convinced I witnessed the largest crevasse I’ve ever seen – perfectly capable of swallowing a couple of the Bombardier commuter jets I boarded days before. We made it across the snow bridges without incident – albeit while thinking ‘light thoughts,’ and plunge-stepped our way back to the trailhead. I know I’ve learned my lesson, and although unneeded, repeated sinkholes to our waists pounded the point home: “Volcanos are for skiing, not climbing.” Though I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, I’m convinced we could’ve rappelled the rock step, and skied the Ptarmigan Ridge in its entirety all the way to the snow line that day. Jeff and others proved you can do it on Lib Ridge, and in general, I’d argue with a little gumption and the right gear, just about any route on that hill should be ascended with skis on your back [or your feet!] to prevent the mental drudgery of plunge-stepping 7k vert back to your vehicle on perfectly skiable snow.
Like many of the volcanos decorating America’s west coast, perhaps the most inspiring views are back at the mountain itself – from all angles of its periphery. Shasta is a classic case – there is nothing for miles but conifers covering rolling hills, and then BOOM, a big white monster erupts from the placid countryside. Ranier is the same way – multiple times on the hike out – and the subsequent drive back to Seattle, there was the obligatory stop and about-face as we felt drawn to take in one last glimpse of the behemoth.
“Damn, that is one big, burly-looking peak.”
“Hell yeah it is.”
Ranier dispatched, I enjoyed a week of the red carpet in the Emerald city catching up with friends and enjoying that city’s wonderful summer weather, and all the luxuries that make living in the city during the week so desirable to many. The last weekend, I was faced with a dilemma: the PNW enjoys a delayed spring/summer, which means lots of snow still in the region, but I left my skis in the Sierra. With a still strong desire for bigger granite routes, Jeff and I decided to go for it anyway - snowy approach be damned, and though there would certainly be snow on Washington Pass, we wanted the goods up there anyway.
WP is great – though it might not be bomb-proof Yosemite granite, we experienced mostly good rock with our three ascents of South Early Winter Spire over two days, and while the weather wasn’t exactly cloudless, it was good enough, and we had a great weekend on fun routes with gorgeous backdrops. Toss in wonderful pizza and local cider at East 20 in Winthrop, and a beautiful, traffic-less drive back to the city, and the entire trip was a success.
I’ll keep working on the routines keeping me refreshed and that evoke a sense of youthful exploration, all the while being thankful for my gracious hosts allowing such itinerancy. I trust you have your own routines, and I hope this finds you in the middle of one, and you’re as excited as I am to keep the train rolling.