| Liberty Ridge-Trapped in Paradise
Liberty Ridge from camp on Curtis Ridge(Nao)
7 years ago I was a 220lb smoker sitting in my Kansas basement watching Everest-Beyond the Limit on the Discovery Channel when I got the wild idea to climb a mountain at some point in my life. My sister lives in Seattle so, why not Rainier? A couple years of training and a quick trip up Pikes Peak was my sum total preperation for a guided climb of Rainier back in 2008. I showed up on the mountain with all the shiny new gear and no clue how to use any of it. Still, somehow the guides managed to get me up and down the DC and my love for the mountains was born. Coming home from that trip, pouring over Rainier literature, I decided that someday (far in the future) I wanted Liberty Ridge. It has been a source of fascination for me since, I had built it into a monster, something I'd never be good enough to do. Fast forward a few years and after a few too many at one of the infamous Matt and Helmut BBQ's, Fletch and I were discussing future climbing plans, Liberty Ridge came up and we set a plan to climb it in 2013.
We spent a couple months putting a team together, and in the end decided on 2 rope teams to make crevasse rescue a little simpler. The original team included 7 people- James (Fletch), Jeff (Surfnturf), Keegan (AlpineDude), John, Nick, Nao, and myself. Early 2013 was spent ice climbing (my first season) John and Nao are both excellent ice climbers and great teachers. After the ice was gone, we focused on carrying stupid heavy packs up assorted 14ers. To be honest, my biggest fear wasn't the technical pitches, it was not being fit enough for 11,000 ft of gain with 50 pounds on my back. Sadly, Nick had to drop from the climb in early May, so our team was down to 6.
The team set aside an entire week in early June for the trip, hoping we could get a 3 day weather window somewhere in there. The date raced up on us and before I knew it we were all on a flight to Seattle on June 8th. The weather gods were kind, we were presented with a solid window starting on June 9th so we spent one night in downtown Seattle and started for the TH less than 24 hours after landing...holy shit, I'm actually going to have to climb this thing.
We arrived at the White River Ranger Station as they opened and finished the assorted paperwork, picked up our blue bags, and asked about conditions. The ranger told us that a couple IMG guides had been up the route just a few days prior and experienced nipple deep snow in places so snowshoes were recommended...Are you f'n kidding me?! Snowshoes?! I did not spend months learning to ice climb and fly halfway across the country to climb a classic line so I could strap snowshoes to my feet. My hatred for those giant unwieldy plastic foot paddles the only reason I learned to ski, and now I have to haul them up Liberty Ridge? Christ, like my pack wasn't already heavy enough. Turns out they never once came off my pack, except for a moment of weakness when I seriously considered donating them to the Carbon Glacier's bowels.
After the usual parking lot rituals we were finally headed up the Glacier Basin Trail, I've been to Paradise a few times so it was nice to see a different view of the mountain, scenery along the way is stunning and I'll never tire of this place.
All set at the TH (Nao)
The mountain comes into view(Nao)
Walking at an easy pace we eventually arrived in Glacier Basin, once again I was taken aback by the beauty of this place.
Headed to St Elmo's Pass(Nao)
Finally we reached the top of St. Elmo's Pass, Dropped to the other side and set foot on the Winthrop Glacier. We had been looking forward to this all morning because it meant we could lessen the burden on our backs by breaking out the ropes, harnesses, crampons and other various gear.
Roping up to cross the Winthrop Glacier(Nao)
Crossing the Winthrop was straightforward with only a handful of small crevasses to step over and after a short time we were gaining Curtis Ridge.
Exiting the Winthrop onto Curtis Ridge(Nao)
Curtis Ridge is deceptively wide, it seemed to take an eternity to get across it to the ridge line that finally takes you to the Carbon Glacier. If I have one piece of advise for day one of this trip, it's to make sure you hit Curtis Ridge at 7,200 ft. Any higher than that and you will find your access to the Carbon Glacier blocked by a cliff. We hit the ridge at 7,600 ft, no big deal to walk down a little ways and find the scree slope leading to the Carbon, just wasted energy. We set up camp with stunning views of the broken Carbon Glacier below and Liberty Ridge towering above us. I had waited for this view for years, and it didn't disappoint.
Alpenglow from camp(Nao)
We got up with the sun on day two, made our way down the ridge to an easy scree slope that allowed us access to the Carbon, it was at this point the gravity of what we were doing hit me. The Carbon is a scary scary place, its fantastically broken and leaves one wondering how you will ever get across it. Luckily the IMG climbers had left a faint booter, huge relief and time saver, route finding was minimal and we made short work of the lower sections.
The Carbon Glacier(Nao)
Starting to cross the Carbon(Nao)
Someone broke the mountain(Nao)
As we got closer and the sun got higher, we were able to get a good look at the upper sections of Liberty Ridge, the only word to describe it is shiny. There looked to be a fair amount of ice up there. We had hoped for tons of snow to kick steps in with maybe 2-3 short pitches of WI3 ice...not today.
We watched a pair of climbers descending from the ridge, when the got to me I asked what the story was. "There is 1,800-2,000 feet of water ice up there, we have a 30m rope and 2 ice screws, not gonna happen today"
First good look at the route...looking shiny (Jeff)
Yup, shiny up top (Jeff)
About a 1000 feet up the Carbon, James stopped and called for a meeting. For many good reasons he had decided this was the end of his journey, the only problem was he couldn't go back alone. John suggested that a couple of us take him back to Curtis Ridge and then climb back up to the team but that would put us at thumb rock pretty late so Jeff stepped up to the plate and volunteered to head down with him. Jeff (a legitimate writer) has an excellent account of his take on the trip here-http://14ers.com/php14ers/tripreport.php?trip=13648&cpgm=tripmain&ski=IncludeIt was a shame to see these two guys head back, going into this climb they were the two guys on the team I had known best, and hell, James and I had put this whole thing together. We sorted gear and switched up the rope teams. Our crew was down to 4, John, Keegan, Nao, and myself.
The four of us picked our way to the toe of Liberty Ridge, chose one of the snowslopes on the climbers right and gained the ridge. This part of the climb is a little unnerving, no matter which slope you choose, it means you will spend at least 30 minutes in a shooting gallery, rockfall on this mountain is ridiculous. I swear it's only held together with tears of former climbers.
View after gaining the toe of Liberty Ridge(Nao)
We soon discovered unroping was far far safer in this terrain, we made our way to the left side of the ridge and picked up a nice booter which took us all the way to Thumb Rock, campsite for night number 2.
Conditions were better on the left side of the ridge
Upon arriving at Thumb rock, we were greeted by a couple climbers (FROM KANSAS) dug into a snow cave, luckily they had left the pre-dug tent platforms for us. Thumb rock is a glorious place, the Willis Wall to your left and Liberty wall to the right offered all kinds of entertainment with constant rockfall and huge serac collapses every 30 min or so. Constant reminders that this mountain is alive and actively trying to end you.
After going through the ritual of melting snow, setting up the 3 man tent (it was cozy with 4 of us in there), and eating dinner, the group laid down at 6pm for a 4 am start up the ridge the following day.
Thumb Rock camp and the Willis Wall(Nao)
John making water (Nao)
Nice place to spend the night(Nao)
By 4 am we were packed up and ready to go, the team was confident, happy and excited to finally be getting to the goods. I had conservatively planned 6-8 hours for the ascent of 3,800ft. Putting us on the summit of Liberty Cap by noon or so, leaving plenty of time to book it down the Emmons and get some beer....boy was I wrong.
The first 800ft or so went quickly, there was a nice hard booter and good snow. John led the way placing pickets every now and then as we climbed. Just below the Black pyramid we had to negotiate a small mixed section and rock band that cost us an hour, no big deal, we were still making good time. The next goal was to wrap around onto the Willis Wall under the Black Pyramid and work our way up the icy slope. John lead left across the first real ice of the day and placed some screws, within a few minutes we were all standing below 800 ft of shiny ice leading up the Black Pyramid. There was a dusting of snow on top, but it wasn't supportive at all, forcing us to kick through to the ice. After a couple hundred feet, the entire route turned to water ice...it's gonna be a long day.
John belaying a mixed section below the black pyramid
I've waited a long time for this view of the saracs
Start of the Black Pyramid(Nao)
Above the Black Pyramid(keegan)
As we worked our way higher and higher, around every bulge and turn, I would ask John "What's it look like?" his response was invariable "Just a little more ice" John excitedly lead every pitch with a smile on his face and I'm pretty sure a raging hard-on in his pants...this guy is a beast. I kept thinking to myself, "How the fuck is he doing this?". We simul climbed everything to save time, the whole thing felt like WI3 to me, but I'm sure it wasn't that hard. My exhausted calves and hypoxic brain were making the whole thing a blur. The ungodly load on my back tried to pull me off the mountain with every kick and my arms were jello from swinging the tools. I totally lost track of time at this point, all I knew is that we were making something like 200 vert an hour. John would place 8 screws or so as we simul climbed and then Nao would clean as he ascended, we would stop, regroup, hand the screws and screamers back to John and start over. Time suck.
Occasionally, we found some snow(Nao)
The bergschrund (Keegan)
Eventually we reached the infamous bergschrund, but to be honest, it was some of the easiest climbing of the day. This was the one section we had planned to pitch out, no need. I thought our difficult climbing would be over at this point, this was it, the crux, and we had passed it. As John crested the schrund I asked "What do you see?" his response "Just a little more ice" F%#K! Really? This would be the last pitch of the day and by far the hardest. John lead the way, having to stop 4 times to clip in direct to his tools and hang for a minute. I thought to myself "Holy hell, if John is struggling this much, what the hell am I going to do?" Sure enough, 10 feet into the pitch, both my feet blew out and I almost peeled off the mountain. Finally after 1,900 feet of ice, I had to call for a belay. 20 feet above us was a ridgeline leading to easy snowslopes and Liberty Cap, fear mode was over, now begins the slog.
Final slopes to Liberty Cap(Keegan)
At 6:30 pm we finally topped out on Liberty Cap in temps near 0 and 40mph steady winds I gave John and Keegan a hug. 14 1/2 of the hardest hours of my life...little did I know it was just the beginning.
Nao on Liberty Cap(Nao)
John, myself, and Keegan on Liberty Cap(Nao)
We wasted no time heading down the Liberty Saddle, I threw on my mittens and heavy down jacket. Our plan was to ascend Columbia Crest for a couple hundred feet, pick up the Emmons Winthrop route and hopefully make Camp Sherman by dark. After 2 hours of slogging, Nao was showing obvious signs of extreme exhaustion, there was no way we would make it down the Emmons tonight route-finding in the dark, so I made the call "We're going to Columbia Crest to sleep in the summit crater and get out of the wind" Like every other decision we had made this day, John and Keegan were on the same page as me, so we committed ourselves to another 800ft of gain and the true summit of Rainier.
Upon reaching the crater at 10pm John looks at me and says "That point looks higher" (pointing at Point Success)...I look down at the crater below us, I've been here before and I know this place, but shit, where is the bootpack from the guided groups? Looking back on it now I laugh, but we had a serious discussion on whether or not we had reached a "false crater" on the summit of Rainier...yeah, we were that messed up.
Before I go any further, let me say that Nao is an especially strong and gifted climber not to mention one hell of a nice guy. He leads hard water ice, climbs rock at a hard grade and has more high altitude experience around the world than anyone in the group. I trust and respect this man, but we all have bad days, and sometimes it happens on the worst possible day. Never once did he complain about anything.
By the time we hit the crater rim, Nao was barely functional, Keegan was short roping him down into the crater. The sun was setting, we were all past the point of exhaustion and it was cold, real cold. We peeled off our packs and set to the task of setting up our tent, we scratched our heads at this confusing pile of fabric and aluminum, it took every bit of mental and physical capacity we had left to get that thing set up. I would drive an axe to stake it down and my heart would race out of control, lose my breath and the world would spin, then repeat. John hopped in the tent and we passed him all the gear we would need for the night, it took me a full 10 minutes to figure out how to get Nao's sleeping bag out of his pack (zippers are complicated in situations like this). Once everything was set, I look over at Nao, in the last 30 min he's managed to get one crampon off and is tangled in his harness...shit, this is bad. We ushered him into the tent where John finished getting his gear off and stuffed him into a sleeping bag.
So begins the longest night of my life. Keegan John and I climbed into our bags and shook uncontrollably for at least 2 hours, I can honestly say I was never too cold but I couldn't stop shaking. Simply rolling over sent my mind spinning and my heart rate out of control. We all knew we needed to eat and drink but we couldn't find the energy to set up the stove and melt water, It had been at least 10 hours since any of us had eaten or drank anything. Finally after a couple hours I found the energy to melt half a liter of water, it was glorious, I tried to share but my tent mates were dead to the world. At 2:30am John and I got up and made as much water as we could and I managed to force down some Mountain House, sleep finally came after this.
Sunrise in the summit crater(Keegan)
At 5am the next morning I put my boots on and stepped out of the tent to take it all in, I sat in a steam vent and just stared into the distance, my god what an amazing place to be. As I sat there the first guided group came over the summit crater and a huge relief came over me. I briefly spoke with the guide about the Emmons route and the DC. He said that he wasn't sure what the Emmons looked like but the DC was a virtual highway with fixed lines, a sidewalk wide bootpack and wands. The forecast had called for clouds and whiteout conditions down low, so I had some reservations about trying to get Nao down the Emmons in his current state. Keegan and I had both done the DC so we knew the route. Even though it meant we would end up on the other side of the mountain from our ID's, money, and car, we decided that we would head down the DC and take advantage of the cattle trail and fixed lines, Nao would need them. I made a few phone calls to let people know what our new plan was and to try to get someone to meet us at Paradise so we could get back to our car at White River....no dice, looks like we would have to find another way to get back to our car. Worst case scenario, we call a cab.
It took 6 hours for us to descend the DC to camp Muir where we stopped and had a nice long break. Nao wasn't getting any better as we got lower, and we needed every one of the fixed lines to get him down. Through this whole process Keegan was an absolute rock, his calm demeanor kept all of our emotions in check as he totally took care of Nao, this guy is a master in tough situations and I can say I would go on any climb anywhere in the world with him. At Camp Muir, John and I decided to bail down the Muir Snowfield as fast as possible to start getting a ride arranged, Keegan stayed with Nao as they did their best to get down, once again, Keegan saves the day.
John and I reached the visitors center at 5:30pm in a rainstorm only to find it closed, I called James from the parking lot and he said he had arranged a ride for us with the Rangers, only problem was that by the time we got down it was too late for them to give us a ride. I used their phone to call every taxi company in the PNW and finally got a cab coming from Olympia...this is gonna be expensive. Now John and I needed to find a place to wait for our fellow climbers and the cab which was 3 hours away. We went to the Paradise Inn and begged for a back room somewhere a garage, anything where we could get out of the weather. They graciously let us sit in their main lobby by the fireplace, the people up there are wonderful. At 7pm Keegan and Nao finally appeared on the snowslopes above the hotel, Keegan was pulling Nao's pack like a sled and Nao was making steady progress behind him. I ushered them into the hotel lobby and told them a cab would arrive in an hour. Finally, we are going to be off this mountain....or so we thought.
The cab arrived at 8:45pm with the meter already reading $226...f it, I didn't care. I told the cabby that we needed to get back to White River campground 1 1/2 hours away. He gave me a blank look and simply asked how to get there. Apparently cab drivers rely solely on their cell phones for navigation and there is no service up there, this guy had no clue how to get where we needed to go. We sat in his cab as he drove up and down the road looking for the Stevens Pass road, after 30 min of wandering around I told him to get out and let me drive...much to my surprise, he did. So now I'm wandering around in the fog unable to see anything and am unable to find our turnoff (it shouldn't be that hard, there is only one turn) eventually I pull over and ask what we should do, nobody has an answer, I throw the cab into reverse and then may or may not have slammed it into a retaining wall on the side of the road...time to go back to Paradise. After a heated discussion with the cab driver, we sent him on his way and weighed our options....Keep in mind its 11pm and we woke up on the summit of Rainier that morning. Finally we decided to just get a room at the Paradise Inn, a quick call to Fletch and he put a room on his card for us, finally, rest. Food service was closed for the night, so after a long awaited shower we fired up the jetboils in our room and finished off our climbing food in a buffet of Ramen, potatoes, and oatmeal. It was then that Nao showed us his frostbite...three fingers to the first knuckle were waxy and white. Shit.
Early the next morning, I headed to the climbing ranger station and they put in a call for us to have a ride at 9am. I can't say enough nice things about the people at Paradise, the ranger showed up and was happy to be giving us a ride to our car instead of pulling bodies off the mountain. After grabbing the car, we headed to Ashford and the Highlander Tavern where we ate and drank as much as we possibly could for the rest of the day. We stopped by the RMI restaurant and bar for a little bit and I caught myself looking at all the guided climbers, their wide eyes and shiny new gear. For half a second I started to snicker and look down my nose at them....then it hit me, jackass, that was you just 5 years ago, pump the breaks.
We had hoped to meet up with Jeff and James down in Portland for Hood, but the truth was, we were smashed. We could barely walk or function, let alone climb a peak, a week later and I still have no feeling in my big toes. Sorry boys, we'll meet up in Denver soon.
This was one hell of an experience for me, I was amazed at the way the four of us managed to get through this ordeal without snapping at eachother a single time, nobody complained once, all decisions were unanimously and instantly approved, like we were one person, and I wouldn't change a single decision we made. I'm sure there are a thousand details I'm forgetting, but this beast is already too long. Thanks.
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