Skiing Liberty Ridge and the Kautz Glacier on Tahoma with Teague – Memorial Day 2017
We can go to incredible lengths to talk ourselves out of great sounding plans. Despite declaring months earlier that we had to be on the lookout for the confluence of opening roads and high pressure for a PNW volcano shred session after the solid snow-year and recent beta, we still did our best to blow the trip before it started.
I got home from Japan on Tuesday and immediately noticed the fantastic, if not a bit warm, forecast for Rainier. Teague and I bounced a few messages while I was gone, but we hadnt moved at all towards a plan. I’d be in WA in 1.5 weeks, so maybe we can just wait? But that forecast… We should make this happen! Then we looked at tickets and prices for good flights were pushing $500 RT. What’s the threshold? Clearly the best thing to do was talk ourselves out of the plan: The route would be too busy with dozens of climbers and multiple skiers on this perfect weather weekend; The skiing probably wouldn’t be great; We could just ski another route; Or maybe just stay in CO since we already know LR will be a shit-show. By Thursday, prices had hit $600 and required flights that conflicted with work schedules. When Friday morning before the long weekend rolled around we still didn’t have tickets in hand. I figured our odds of flying out were < 10 %. Nonetheless, I packed my gear in the car, just in case. Around noon I made a last ditch effort, and low and behold, nearly perfect flights leaving Denver at 7:45 PM that night and flying back 6:45PM on Monday for ~$350 RT including bags. Guess we are going to Rainier. TH and I met up at the Elbert lot and sorted various knick-knacks and do-dads into take and leave piles. Weighed our bags and we were good to go.
Still without a plan, we flipped through the guidebook on the plane. Our prediction was that LR crowds would be bad on Saturday, worse on Sunday, and the route too big to bite off Monday before our flight. Ski south side on Saturday? Kautz/Fuhrer/Headwalls?? LR on sunday? Sounds like a pain. Drive straight to Adams? Baker? All we really want to do is ski LR. Let’s take a nap and decide when we wake up. About 40 min before landing – “fuck it, let’s just ski LR tomorrow”.
We land, grab a car and are on the road around 10:30 PM. A quick stop at the Des Moines Safeway yields a plethora of caffeinated beverages and items that will pass for breakfast in the middle of the night. I think we rolled into the White River trailhead around 1 AM. Lots of folks bivying in or next to their cars. Clearly, we are screwed. We park and try our best not to wake the crowds. A mix of getting dressed, consuming breakfast and drinking beverages has us leaving the TH around 1:45. We made decent time up to tree line and were greeted to a spectacular sunrise that lasted from St Elmo most of the way to the toe of the Carbon glacier. Along the way we noted one human size hole in a snowbridge and vowed to rope up on the way back through that afternoon.
We also passed multiple parties at the various low camps along the way. Not looking good. As we turned up the Carbon, we saw skiers ahead of us, presumably looking to ski our line. 30 min or so later we caught up with them and I realized one of them was a friend from the facebook who I’d stayed in touch with over the years, but never met in person. Turns out they were skiing down the Emmons. After chatting, we moved on, finding great travel through the large crevasses of the Carbon, up to a wet slide that was providing easy access over the schrund that gains the ridge. Snow was firm on the west side of the ridge and we made good time up to Thumb rock. There we met another party of two that we’re on a more typical multi-day itinerary for the route. They were stopping to brew up. I asked if they had any extra wag bags, which they did, and I immediately put it to use. Just like that, our fears of crowds were alleviated and we had the rest of LR empty above us on Memorial day weekend with the best weather of an outstanding snow year. Touche expectations.
Above Thumb, we moved to the east and the snow was immediately hot and wet. Rockfall was starting up, and we didnt linger long. Probably should have stayed on the cold side. If the upper east aspects – the only clean skiable line – had this warm snow, we’d be doomed. We climbed higher and the snow got colder. We dodged blue ice via 1-2” of seasonal snow over that same blue ice. Luckily it felt well bonded. At some point the lack of sleep and 10+k of vert became noticeable. The schrund provided a few body lengths of vertical neve, which we’d have to rap on the way back down. Then just a stroll to the top of liberty cap. Summit conditions were exceptional. Barefeet. Shirts off. Could stay all day, but that might not be prudent.
The skiing starts out mellow, but ramps up as soon as you drop back in toward the upper schrund. Perfect chalky, steep skiing down to the schrund rap.
Clear that and the exposure gets even better. We tread lightly around the alpine ice, but find the lingering seasonal snow to provide excellent skiing. We run back into the 2 parties from earlier and do our best not to knock anything else down on them. It’s rather fun to be skiing next to folks climbing with two tools out.
As we descend lower, we start to fear the warming slopes that we left hours prior. Luckily, those slopes have now started to cool as the sun has passed across them, and the skiing is fun, and easy with just a bit of mandatory wet slough management to not get raked over the 3000’ of cliffs and crevasses below. As soon as we can, we cut back the west side of the ridge where conditions fluctuate between pre-corn and something firmer, but always enjoyable. The skiing is spectacular.
All too soon, we are crossing over the bottom schrund and ripping ripe corn through crevasses on the carbon down to 7k.
7000’ of one of the best fall lines I know of in the lower 48 above us. We eat and drink most of what we have left and start the slog back to St. Elmos. A bit of skiing mixes in, but it’s mostly a traverse. The east side of Elmos is overripe and stick;, oh well. Eventually the snow runs out and I find myself cursing the painful down-hike in my too-small boots. The hike goes slow in pain, but eventually we wander back into the parking lot thoroughly satisfied with one of the best days of skiing of our lives.
After LR, we stopped to visit with some friends who we thought we might see on-route, but ended up with a gear malfunction. We realized we should have grabbed another permit if we wanted to ski the next day, but now all the ranger stations would be closed. As we drove around to Ashford on the south side of Rainier, the wear and tear from the day set in a bit, and we realized skiing the next day probably wasn’t in the cards. A better plan was lots of sleep and a monster breakfast. Then we rolled up to Paradise to scope conditions. So much skiing to be done, it was hard to decide. Finger/Thumb/Wilson all looked a bit dirty and already had some tracks. Kautz glacier was gleaming pristine whiteness, so that had to be the call. We snagged a permit and headed back down the hill, bed time at 7:30 PM, alarm set for 12:15 AM. Seemed damn civilized compared to Fri-Sat’s shenanigans.
Temps at 2:30 AM were warm. Freeze down low was non-existant. We headed up a beaten path in the dark and just started moving. Eventually, we decided we’d gone too high to split down to the Nisqually, so we did some rather dark tree skiing down to a lower bench. No tracks anywhere. Oh well, maybe we screwed up. We started moving uphill again, eventually finding some tracks at the moraine. Travel on the nisqually was easy and we made good time up towards the Wilson. Like Saturday, we kept the pace casual, but sleep sure makes casual feel casual.
One of the best treats of the trip was experiencing sunrise from both sides of the mountain on the same weekend. The northside starts the day with a wide spread glow eventually rendering the city lights in the distance useless. The southside is a lot slower to get things lit. As we gained the upper turtle, we noticed the low lands were in a cloud and Tahoma had cast its shadow across the valley and clouds.
We gained the Kautz glacier and found what looked to be a great set of ski pitches with excellent snow coverage. Above the 2nd “ice pitch” we started the traverse to Columbia Crest, gaining the top a bit under 6 hours after we started.
Once again, we were all alone on a summit of Rainier, this time the main one. We had some time to kill before the Kautz ripened. Teague was upset that there werent any steam vents around, but quickly found some to remedy that problem. Geothermal heating makes the corn-nap much easier. Teague commenced with some high-altitude-vulcan-glacial-free-caving exercises. I mostly just shifted around looking for the hottest rocks I could find. Eventually other folks from the Emmons or DC started showing up and with a couple hours rest under our belts, skiing seemed prudent. Not before I dropped my phone in a vent…
On the way up, it was clear that the best way to ski the Kautz was from point success, so we made the easy ski over to our final Tahoma-summit of the weekend. The upper pitch was a bit steep and firm, but still great skiing.
We werent in much of a hurry, so before the lower pitches, we sat down to burn another 30 min or so. The result was perfect steep corn. Just dreamy.
The Kautz often ends with a counter ascent back to the Turtle. Not this year. A firm snow traverse and 6’ of horizontal dirt was the only mandatory un-snow we’d contend with that day. Turtle skied warm but well, with better conditions as we turned things slightly SW. Unfortunately, with Paradise to our east, an aspect change at some point was mandatory. Oh well. Schmooooooo it is. Even the counter ascent to paradise was easy. 50’ or so of booting, then skiing the footprints back to the parking lot.
Such an incredible weekend that we almost let get away from us due to warranted or unwarranted concerns. Sometimes you just gotta go for it and see where the cards land.