Trip Report    

Steamboat Prow Loop from Sunrise

A 26km+ loop with 2,100m +/- to climb and descend both the north and south ridges of Steamboat Prow with an incidental summit of Mount Ruth.

  • Road suitable for all vehicles

It has taken me nearly a year to digest and mentally process this route, and longer to sit down and put this experience to pen. I have struggled to contextualize and communicate what this route accurately entailed, but more than that I have had to wrestle with a hesitancy to bring irresponsible attention to and shine a potentially hazardous light on a route that presents profound objective hazards. There have been a number of individuals who have reached out since I completed this loop Summer of 2020 communicating their curiosity and mutual interest. For better or worse, what's done is done and it is worth documenting to hopefully paint an accurate picture and offer my own experience to be interpreted, metabolized, or entirely disregarded as the reader sees fit.

If you have visited the Sunrise lodge at Mount Rainier, aware or not, you have stared directly at one of The Mountain's proudest features - Steamboat Prow. A 2,950m tall, glaciated, andesite protrusion that splits the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers like the prow of an icebreaker. 50 vertical meters below sleeps Camp Schurman, which serves as the NE high camp on The Mountain, and the launch point for hopeful summiteers on the Emmons glacier route. It is by every description a proud sight and a standalone, noteworthy objective by itself, even being dwarfed by its parent attraction.


I have spent a number of Summers visiting the Fremont Fire Lookout and enjoying the remarkable view of The Mountain and all of her lovely North, North East features. In the last few years, developing a proclivity for mountain running as some hybrid discipline of trail running, scrambling, and mountaineering, I have grown into a different lens to look at what is possible for substantial and impactful objectives at The Mountain. For me, anything worth doing at The Mountain is worth doing big, doing right, and doing with a full heart. The Prow grabbed my attention and just would not let go until I asked the question "can you close the loop?"

Most climbers and ski mountaineers are familiar with the South ridge of The Prow as it serves the main access route to Mount Ruth, Camp Curtis, and the eventual destination of Camp Schurman. The South ridge sports no more than a boot scuff in its identifiable North Eastern dusty manner, but nonetheless it is the route up The Prow. I had to wonder if anyone had ever bothered to attempt the North ridge. It looked horrendous, from nearly 7km away the hardly identifiable features were intimidating - I could only imagine how bad they truly were up close. They are much worse, but we will get to that.

Before making any sort of legitimate attempt at this half baked "what if?" idea, I spent a good deal of time scouring SummitPost, WTA, The Mountaineers website, Cascade Climbers, and any personal blogs I could find that made mention of The Prow, to see what I could glean, but primarily to ascertain if it had even been done. The Pacific Northwest has a rich history of cutting edge climbing, iconic first ascents, and holsters the highest level of production of world class mountain athletes, so I really wanted to do my due diligence before throwing myself at something foolish, or something that had already been well documented. This question remains unanswered to me, so if you are reading this and have any history on this route that I was unable to overturn please reach out, I would love to hear more. Ultimately, I could find nothing about a complete loop of Steamboat Prow, much less one that began at Sunrise and tagged the subsequent high points along the route, and concluded back at Sunrise.

August 22nd, 2020 was the day and the stars aligned. I set out from Sunrise at 1625 and took off up the Sourdough Ridge trail. Dispatching with the cruiser lengths out to Frozen Lake and Third Burroughs, I found myself staring down the North ridge of The Prow, mostly excited, a little nervous, but entirely humbled and just grateful to be running in the most magnificent, hallowed, and storied national park I have had the honor of experiencing. There was nothing for it but to go for it.


Upon departing Third Burroughs, you follow the base of the North ridge, which has a faint boot scuff of a trail, probably best described as a game trail with the occasional foot print left in the dust. This is every bit the aesthetic of mountain running that you could ask for: proper ridge line running, towering glaciers and thundering seracs, ever present exposure, and the roaring of the headwaters of the Pacific Northwest. The running is technical to be perfectly modest about it - there are dinner plate sized slabs of rock, mixed with hard pack dust and gravel all the while looking directly down on both sides of the ridge at a one way ticket ride to where you do not want to be. The running is as much a head game as it is a physical feat of technical mountain running.

The first major obstacle is a feature I have come to call The Pinnacle (unnamed on the park map or any other publication for that matter), and it is in every way unmistakable. It presents a progress halting question mark that offers no readily identifiable solution. As much as I would still like to believe there is a better option, I opted to dive North - North West to circumnavigate the impending protrusion. This is where I still struggle to articulate the level of objective hazard, complexity, and difficulty that this route presents, because up until this point the running is heady but for the most part straight forward. Upon reaching The Pinnacle you simply have to be able to switch your mindset from motor to project. To navigate this crumbly, hard pack mess of an obstacle, you have to skirt its northern gullies which present serious hazards for falling, sliding, and exposure to rockfall. I cannot overemphasize enough the importance of slowing down, sound decision making, and intentional movement to successfully dispatch with this length. On a recent return outing my running partner Lisa Green described this section saying "this makes the Cascadian [couloir] look like a red carpet." This is the first deposit in your price of admission to unlocking this proud line.


Once successfully on the South side of The Pinnacle you reach yet another complex protrusion that I have taken to calling Stegosaurus Ridge. I truly hope that someone has properly named the features, but for the sake of this report I have to use the rag-tag names that I have come up with, so please continue to humor me. This leg is a short but aesthetically engaging section of vertical rock fingers that present no readily identifiable option for skirting. The rock is quite solid and makes for highly enjoyable scrambling. The rock is bomber, sticky, and quite sound. This variety in terrain is what makes mountain running so incredibly thrilling to me, it makes for a deeply engaging, dynamic, and complex challenge that normal distance running still lacks for me.

After successfully cresting Stegosaurus Ridge you drop into what I will tout as the most aesthetic section of ridge running in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps even the entirety of the West Coast. Having just dispatched with two highly technical sections of Cascadian scree surfing and high level scrambling, the mountain running resumes along an objectively perfect swath of ridge line that boasts extreme exposure and immaculate downhill. I wish this length could be multiplied by a factor of ten, but alas it is short, dreamy, and wonderfully rewarding. This low point on the ridge is one of the very few features that is labeled on any national park publication - Saint Elmo Pass.

After a well earned length of mind-bendingly gorgeous running, the mountainous terrain raises its proud head again in the form of an additional cluster of rock features that must be skirted to the North - North West. This section is short and techy, and it must be handled with care as before with navigating The Pinnacle. A single wrong move will result in an Eastbound tumble headlong towards the Winthrop glacier basin below. This final grouping of spires is the last notable feature before arriving to the base of the gullies.


If you have given any considerable thought to attempting this route you know perfectly well what I am referring to and it is the obvious and definitive crux of this route. The Gullies are the massive castle-like labyrinth of "rock" at the base of the North ridge of The Prow. What you cannot tell from a distance is that these rock features are not solid rock at all, they are a terrifying composite of gravel, mud, ice, and soccer ball size rocks held together by no more than a breath. Once you have entered the winding maze of gullies and pillars it becomes exceedingly obvious just how complex this section is. There is no obvious route upward, at best it is a game of choose you own adventure and hope you don't roll snake eyes. I could not give you a point by point sequence of directions here even if I tried - simply put this is not somewhere you want to stand around spending time considering your options. You have eclipsed the point of commitment, up and over is now the safest and still most complex single option you have. Move with intention, precise speed, and a quick prayer.



The quality of terrain here is unimaginable, without doubt the absolute worst section of vertical climbing I have done in my short six years as a Cascadian climber. All exaggeration and sandbagging aside, I really need to impress upon whoever has read this far that this is extreme terrain with the highest level of objective hazard and consequence. To successfully pass The Gullies I had to pull meters of vertical climbing of fourth and fifth class moves on mud, gravel, and handholds that explode if applied with too much pressure. This is full blown stemming, hand-to-foot matching, down-palming, and balancey, bouldery moves, all the while under crumbling pillars of volcanic junk being held together by melting ice and mud. This was one of the few times I really had to question the merit and value of exposure to this sort of objective hazard.




After a cocktail of near misses, a decent amount of exposure, intentional foreground focus, and a good bit of luck, you finally arrive at the top of one of the gullies that fans out onto the ridge line somewhere around 2,500m. A well earned sigh of relief knowing that the quantifiable crux is now behind. Continuing upward the North ridge remains steep and stout, but at least it is open enough to make an educated guess on the safest path upward and onward. 450m of climbing later, I arrived at the high point of the route - pure elation, it goes!


I enjoyed a few sweet moments of looking back on the ridge, the Burroughs, Mount Fremont, the Stuart Range, Glacier peak and beyond, as well as down on the parties wandering about at Camp Schurman. Even from 50m+ above, I knew I was getting some inquisitive looks wearing a running vest and shorts. I waved.


By this time the sun had set and that truly magical hour of purple and pink haze was all that lingered on the NE side of The Mountain. Knowing I was barely halfway through the route I had to turn my back to The Mountain and point my nose downhill. I picked up the boot scuff and made my way out to Mount Ruth, and down the old trail to avoid crossing Inter Glacier. Completely dark by this point, I had reached White River at the base of Glacier Basin and found my way across the heavy evening flow. Once across it was just a matter of locating the trail along the river shore and dispatching with the 5.6 downhill kilometers back to White River Campground. Arriving at WRC was a momentary relief, the final demoralizing requirement was grinding out the 650m of climbing back up to Sunrise. This was a real head game in the dark after already an intensive and immersive push.

Eventually it all came together and I found myself running the final bit into the Sunrise Parking lot, weaving between astrophotographers, expired hikers, and some verbose groups of teenagers obviously returning from their good time at Fremont Lookout.


6:45:08, my watch beeped as I punched the end button. Aside from actually summiting The Mountain, this is without doubt one of my most proud accomplishments in the park. This route is something I put a lot of time, thought, and energy into making sure I gave myself the best chance of success through a lot of reading, researching, planning, a bit of reconnaissance, and a good deal of educated guessing. I really cannot, in good conscience, suggest that anybody go and repeat this route which is why I have honestly struggled to put this write up together for so long. The dynamic nature and intense level of complexity that closing this loop demands cannot go overstated. I hope that I have done justice to offer fair warning and an objective appraisal of the considerations and hazards present in attempting this route.

This is a magnificent feature, a wonderful challenge, and the proudest of lines.

No bad days at the mountain!

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