Trip Report: Steamboat Prow Loop

Get the inside scoop on a magnificent, risky mountain running adventure at Mt. Rainier's Steamboat Prow.
Jonathan Foster Jonathan Foster
4-year member
July 16, 2021

If you’ve ever visited the Sunrise Lodge at Mount Rainier, you have likely stared directly at one of Mt. Rainier's proudest features: Steamboat Prow. This 2,950m tall, glaciated, andesite protrusion splits the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers like the prow of an icebreaker. Fifty vertical meters below sleeps Camp Schurman, which serves as the northeast high camp on the mountain and the launch point for hopeful summiteers on the Emmons glacier route.

Most climbers and ski mountaineers are familiar with the south ridge of the prow because it serves as the main access route to Mount Ruth, Camp Curtis, and the final destination of Camp Schurman. The north ridge, on the other hand, sports no more than a dusty boot scuff as the route up the prow. I had to wonder if anyone had ever bothered to attempt the north ridge. It looked horrendous; even from nearly 7km away, the features were intimidating. I could only imagine how bad they were up close. I came to discover that this route was just as, if not more, challenging and hazardous than it appeared (but we’ll get into that shortly).  

The nagging question 

I've spent a number of summers visiting the Fremont Fire Lookout and enjoying the remarkable view of the mountain and all of her lovely north-northeast features. In the last few years, developing a proclivity for mountain running as a hybrid discipline of trail running, scrambling, and mountaineering, I've adopted a different lens to look at what is possible for substantial and impactful objectives. The variety in terrain is what makes mountain running so thrilling, offering a deeply engaging, dynamic, and complex challenge that normal distance running lacks. 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 wouldn't let go until I asked the question: "Can you close the loop?"

Before making any legitimate attempt at this half-baked, "What if?" idea, I dedicated a good deal of time scouring SummitPost, WTA, The Mountaineers website, Cascade Climbers, and any personal blogs I could find that made mention of Steamboat Prow to see what I could glean, but primarily to ascertain if it had even been done before. The Pacific Northwest has a rich history of cutting-edge climbing, iconic first ascents, and boasts the highest level of production of world-class mountain athletes, so I wanted to do my due diligence before throwing myself at something foolish, or something that had already been well-documented. Ultimately, I was unable to find anything on a complete loop of Steamboat Prow, much less one that began at Sunrise, tagged the subsequent high points along the route, and concluded back at Sunrise (if you are reading this and have any additional history on this topic, please reach out).  

Putting the research into action

On August 22, 2020, the stars aligned. With my route researched and planned, I took off on my trail running adventure. I set out from Sunrise and started up the Sourdough Ridge trail. As I cruised past Frozen Lake and Third Burroughs, I found myself staring down the north ridge of the prow. I was a little excited, a little nervous, but entirely humbled and grateful to be running in the most magnificent, hallowed, and storied National Park I've had the honor to experience. I knew I had to go for it.

Upon departing Third Burroughs, I followed the base of the north ridge. A faint boot scuff of a trail, the north ridge is best described as a game trail with the occasional footprint left in the dust. This is the very aesthetic of mountain running that you could ask for: proper ridgeline running, towering glaciers and thundering seracs, ever-present exposure, and the roaring headwaters of the Pacific Northwest. The running is technical; 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 to somewhere you don't want to go. The running is as much a head game as it is a physical feat of technical mountain running.

The Pinnacle and stegosaurus ridge

The first major obstacle is a feature I've come to call “the pinnacle.” It is unmistakable, presenting a progress-halting question mark on the route. As much as I hoped there would be a better solution, I opted to dive north-northwest to circumnavigate the impending protrusion. I still struggle to articulate the level of objective hazard, complexity, and difficulty that the piece of the loop presents. To navigate the crumbly, hard pack mess of the pinnacle, I had to skirt its northern gullies, which also presented serious hazards for falling, sliding, and exposure to rock fall. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of slowing down, sound decision-making, and intentional movement to successfully dispatch with this length. To put the above comments in perspective, my dear friend Lisa Green has recently described this section by saying it “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 on the south side of the pinnacle, you reach yet another complex protrusion that I've 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've come up with, so please continue to humor me. This leg is a short, but aesthetically engaging, section of vertical rock fingers that presents no clear option for skirting. The rock, however, is quite solid and makes for highly enjoyable scrambling.

After successfully cresting Stegosaurus Ridge I dropped 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. This low point on the ridge, Saint Elmo Pass, is one of the very few features that is labeled on any National Park publication. Having just completed two highly-technical sections of Cascadian scree surfing and high-level scrambling, the mountain running resumes along a 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.

Choose Your Own Adventure

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-northwest. This section is short and technical, and it must be handled with the same care as 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 at the base of the gullies.

The gullies are a massive castle-like labyrinth of rock at the base of the north ridge of the prow. What you cannot discern from a distance is that these rock features are not solid rock at all; they are instead a terrifying composite of gravel, mud, ice, and rocks the size of soccer balls. Once you have entered the winding maze of gullies and pillars it becomes exceedingly obvious just how complex this section is. There is no apparent route upward. At best, this segment is a game of "choose you own adventure" - hope you don't roll snake eyes. I couldn’t give you step-by-steps directions even if I tried, but what I can tell you is that it’s not somewhere you want to stand around considering your options. You have eclipsed the point of commitment; up and over is now the safest, albeit complex, option you have. Move with intention, precise speed, and a quick prayer.

The quality of terrain here is unimaginable, without a doubt the worst section of vertical climbing I have done in my short six years as a Cascadian climber. All exaggeration and sandbagging aside, I need to impress upon whoever has read this far that this is extreme terrain with many objective hazards and potentially serious consequences. In order to successfully pass the gullies I had to pull meters of fourth and fifth class vertical climbing moves on mud, gravel, and handholds that would have exploded had I applied too much pressure. This is full-blown stemming - hand-foot matching, down-palming, and bouldering moves, all under crumbling pillars of volcanic junk that are held together only by melting ice and mud. This was one of the few times I paused to question the merit and value of this risk.

After an array of near misses, a decent amount of exposure, intentional foreground focus, and a good bit of luck, I finally reached the top of one of the gullies that fans out onto the ridge lines around 2,500m. I let out a well-earned sigh of relief knowing that the quantifiable crux was behind me. Continuing upward, the north ridge remains steep and stout, but at least it is open enough to make an educated guess about the safest path upward and onward. 450m of climbing later, I arrived the high point of the route - pure elation!

I enjoyed a few sweet moments of looking back on the ridge: the Burroughs, Mount Fremont, the Stewart Range, Glacier Peak and more. I peered down on parties wandering around at Camp Schurman. Even from 50m+ above, I knew I was getting some inquisitive looks wearing only a running vest and shorts. I waved.

The Return

By this time, the sun had set and the magical hour of purple and pink haze was all that lingered on the northeast side of The Mountain. Since 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, making 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 a matter of locating the trail along the river shore and descending the 5.6km downhill back to White River Campground. Arriving at the campground provided only momentary relief. The final, demoralizing requirement was grinding out the 650m of climbing back up to Sunrise, a real head game in the dark after an already intense push.

Eventually, 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 summiting the mountain, this mountain run was without doubt one of my proudest accomplishments in Mount Rainier National Park.

reflection and Warning

I put a lot of time, thought, and energy into making sure I gave myself the best chance for success on this route. The trip required a lot of reading, researching, planning, a bit of reconnaissance, and a good deal of educated guessing. I cannot, in good conscience, suggest that anybody blindly repeat this route without proper preparation. This, too, is why I have struggled to put this trip report together for so long. The high level of complexity and dynamic skill set that closing the loop demands cannot be overstated. I hope that I have done justice to offer both fair warning and an objective appraisal of the considerations and hazards present in attempting this route.

All considerations aside, closing the Steamboat Prow Loop was a magnificent feat, a wonderful challenge, and the proudest of moments. No bad days at the mountain!


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Angela French
Angela French says:
Jul 18, 2021 02:40 PM

Wow! Sure wish there were accompanying photos!