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Trip Report    

Mount Rainier/Kautz Glacier

Private climb up Kautz, carryover down DC

  • Fri, Jul 16, 2021 — Sun, Jul 18, 2021
  • Mount Rainier/Kautz Glacier
  • Climbing
  • Successful
  • Road suitable for all vehicles
  • Overall the route is in good condition. 

    -The winds were pretty strong, near gale force, particularly on any ridges and up high.

    -Plenty of crevasses including some really big ones on the Kautz and Nisqually

    -2 pitches of ice in each of the two steps in the chute.

    -DC route was in good condition to descend and had zero issues.

We had plans for a 3 day climb with permits for Wilson zone night 1 and Kautz zone night 2.  The plan was to get as high as permit allowed (upper castle), and then make the call later depending on how we felt, weather, etc for where we would get night 2.  Everybody kind of liked the idea of a summit bivy if things worked out that way.

We got permits the day previous at white river on the way in, camped just outside the park, and got an early start from Paradise the next morning

Day 1

We started around 7:15 or so.

Crossing lower Nisqually was straight forward.  There's lots of crevasses, but navigating was manageable, even in the fog.  The fan is out, but the Wilson Gully is a go.

One noteworthy section is a few hundred feet below the lower castle on the traverse the top of the Wilson glacier below the lower castle, there was some rock feature that had a significant rockfall event just a few minutes before we were going to traverse underneath it.  There will be plenty of rocks strewn across the boot pack in that area to indicate something happened there but beware, move quickly, and keep your head on a swivel.

There was water at the upper castle where we camped at 9500' next to the water stream.  The wind was fairly strong here, and despite the rock rings, they didn't do much to provide shelter.  The wind would actually blow water on us in camp from the stream.

Because of the wind, I didn't sleep much (if at all) that night.

Day 2

We left Upper Castle around 5 am.  We got up to camp hazard around 6:30 ish.   I heard the day previous there was water at camp hazard, but I never saw it.  Could be it was just too early for it to flow while we passed through there.  While there were several groups camping above us, several of them retreated due to the winds up high and there was only what looked to be 4 or 5 people already on route on the upper step at this point.  It didn't inspire a lot of confidence in our decision to keep going.  My biggest concern was trying to ice climb with a pack on in high winds, seemed like a setup for taking a fall on the ice.

At the rappel point, there was a party below that somehow had dropped their pack from the rappel and it rolled down and below into who knows where.  The guys were trying to retrieve it.  As I understand it was one of the guides who dropped his pack?  (I'd be upset if I was a paying client and my climb was ruined by a guide being careless with his pack).  If I dropped my pack, assuming I had my car keys I think I'd just hit the abort button and just turn around and not even bother trying to get it from the terrain they were going into.  The wind was really strong at the notch and it was really difficult to communicate with them to know what they were doing.  We waited for a bit before we made the rap.  At the ground, the wind died down significantly and was pretty mild from there on until Wapowety cleaver (thankfully).  The ice cliff above was silent the entire time we were on route as much as we could tell.  Having read reports of ice fall here, crossing under that was unnerving and required a lot of situational awareness.

We got to the lower pitches around 7:45, and spent some time racking up, going over how were going to climb it with 3 people on one rope, and taking a break.  (In hindsight we should have done some of this stuff the day previous as we wasted a good chunk of time).

Kautz chute consists of 2-3 pitches of ice for each of the 2 steps.   We each had 2 ice tools and 10 screws as a team.  I carried a pair of  venoms and the others carried a bit more aggressive tools.  While initially a few months back while planning this trip I had hoped to bring a tool and then a standard axe, bringing two tools was definitely the right call.  Despite being mid July, the route was probably in mid August conditions.

We simul climbed the lower step.  There would probably be 2 pitches with the first being the more sustained, surprisingly so, but there were more stepped options to the either side we could have taken.  We placed every screw  we had.

We pitched out the upper step into 2 traditional belayed pitches each ~ 40m long and then simul-climbed one pitch as we transitioned back to glacier travel configuration.  One the first pitched, we again placed all the screws we had.  The second pitch we used like 3-4 screws and on the final we placed just one screw and a picket as we transitioned to flatter ground.  The last pitch is very easy, but a fall there would be catastrophic so at least putting a few pieces in seemed prudent.  The ice was better on the upper step than the lower with less dinner-plating.  We topped out on the pitches ~12:45 am.

We took a good long break there for a bit and made the transition back to glacier travel.  There are quite a bit of crevasses above there.  There wasn't much of a boot track, so be prepared to do your own navigation.  For the first several hundred feet, it required a lot of end runs but had no issues for the first half.  There was some tracks from a pair of climbers coming down that we ran into that crossed right through more or less the middle of the glacier ~12,800 ft over a snow bridge over a sizeable crevasse.  Upon inspecting that snow bridge, I didn't like the look of it considering it was one of those arch type that doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, and things were getting soft in the afternoon sun, so we opted to retreat and try and go between some crevasses to the right and slightly down.  The team mate in the lead punched through into a crevasse.  It's one of those things you train for, but I had a bit of a delayed reaction as I was on the opposite end of the rope at the back and not really paying attention to him and was looking around.  It wasn't until I saw the middle climber in self arrest position that it occurred to me what happened and I dropped down.    We had to setup an anchor before we made any effort to get out, but luckily was able to get himself out without any assistance.

We were all a little spooked by the crevasses in this section after that.  There was a ton of hidden crevasses there.  It was getting late in the afternoon and obviously the snow bridges were getting weak.  We opted to traverse back to the climbers left and give those series of crevasses a wide berth.  We went probably  even further left than we needed to, but didn't want to mess with the crevasse shenanigans again.   The downside to this is that it brought us through some  difficult penitente snow to ascend and then traverse back across the glacier to the Wapowety cleaver.  It was awful going through that stuff; the rope kept catching, I kept post-holing as they would collapse, my shins were getting banged up, the fatigue of the high steps, etc.  It was super slow going to gain a few hundred feet and then traverse and there was an excess of profanity coming from my mouth from the frustration of the snow.  We finally got to the edge of the Wapowety cleaver; the moat crossings all looked sketchy considering we didn't trust any snow bridges.  After deliberating and trying and retreating from a few different spots that all looked suspect, we found a spot where some rocks chocked the moat and we were able to cross with a little jump and help from a boulder on the other side.

 At that point it was almost 6 pm or so and what should have taken us 2 hours tops from the top of the ice pitches took us like 4+ hours to do with the crevasse fall, deliberation, and the detours, and the difficult snow, and the moat crossings.  We had hopes to continue on to the crater and camp there because we thought it would be the most sheltered from the wind since we had heard the 13k bivy was fairly exposed, but the cumulative effects of the altitude , the effort of the day, and the time on our fee, I was feeling pretty done.   Also, we didn't think it would be wise to travel on any more snow bridges until the refreeze/cool of morning again.

We found a spot just above the rock rings that was significantly more sheltered from the wind, so spent a good amount of time chopping ice/snow for a while to make a level platform for our tent.  Our other team mate used a bivy behind one of the rock rings.  It was cold and I don't think any of us slept well, but at least we had more shelter from the wind than I thought we would, and it wasn't as bad as it could have been.  In hindsight it was definitely the right call to stop there.

Also in hindsight, we should have gotten an earlier start out of the upper castle.  We figured that all the groups at hazard would beat us to the pitches, and we didn't want to have ice raining down on us, so getting to the start of the ice a bit later would allow a lot of the groups to go above us, and we might even benefit from the boot track being a bit more established, but this turned out to not be the case and there was only a handful of people above us and not much of a boot track.

Day 3

We woke up at 3 and left camp probably in the 4:30 to 5 am range (I didn't look at my phone).  The gps tracks from a week earlier had the route going all the way up to the top of the cleaver just below where the ice steepens and supposedly they traversed over a snow bridge.  We climbed up to there to realize it led to an impassable/collapsed bridge, so had to descend a few hundred feet back to the entrance to the Nisqually just above the bivy.  From here there was a pretty good bootpack all the way to the summit.  The crevasses on this part of the Nisqually were some of the biggest on the mountain and we were all glad to be doing it in the morning rather than late afternoon.  The route goes pretty far to the east on the Nisqually and then heads back to towards the saddle between Pt. Success and the crater.  I was definitely not going to win any speed records, but that is par for the course I guess.  Considering our wasted time on the detour, I suppose our pace wasn't as slow as I initially thought it was.

We hit the crater right around 8 am.  Surprisingly, most everybody was already gone.  The winds were pretty strong, the forecast called for something on the order 35-45 mph.  I was glad we didn't try and camp in the crater, as even in the crater the wind was still relatively strong, and it would have been difficult to level out a spot in the snow with the penitentes.  After a relatively long break and even a quick nap for me, and around 9 am we started making our way over to the entrance to the DC route.  There was basically nobody else on the DC as we descended.  We saw a group at the top of the cleaver while we were still at over 13k, but they were long gone by the time we got there.  

We ran into a large guided group at the base of the cleaver at the transition back to the glacier that were going up for a sunset summit.  I thought part of glacier travel 101 was travelling in the cool of the night/early morning, not departing at 2 pm.  While in general the DC was in good shape, it seemed kind of a dumb decision and goes against everything I had been taught.  I imagine it was part of some marketing ploy of "sunset summit" to get people to sign up.  Things like this that the commercial guides do disregard what is accepted as "best practice"  bugs me. Oh well, rant over and I'll step down from my soapbox.

The icefall above on the Ingraham was more threatening looking than I remember it from previous DC climbs.  While crossing underneath it there was one grapefruit size rock that fell.  Again, situational awareness and move fast there.

There is running water at the edge of the Ingraham at the transition back to cathedral gap.  Someway the rock section descending to the Cowlitz seemed much longer than it I recall the last time I was here 9 years ago.  Not sure if its just my perception, or if literally the glacier has retreated further down.  

We were back to muir by around 2:45.  One of our group members left at 3:15 as he drove separately and was much quicker than the other 2 of us.  He supposedly made it down before 5.  We were a bit more leisurely and left Muir around 4 and hit the cars just after 7.  The snowfield we made good time on, but the trail through paradise we slowed way down.  My toes were in agony, particularly on the paved sections.  I don't understand why they paved those trails-they are too steep to be considered "accessible".

We didn't leave the parking lot until 7:45.  For the record, basically all the restaurants outside the park through Ashford, Elbe, Eatonville, etc all closed around 8pm, just right before we got there, and then everything in Eatonville at 9 pm, again right before we rolled into town. We finally resorted to Burger King in Graham as it was the first thing we could find that was open.  We may have asked for a 4 patty whopper....

All in all, fun route.   Different experience seeing a different part of the mountain and then having the mountain mostly to yourself where there are often conga lines.