The Ledge: A Review and Daydream of Liberty Ridge

I recently finished reading The Ledge: An Adventure Story of Friendship and Survival on Mount Rainier by Jim Davidson and Kevin Vaughan (2011). It’s a very good story about, well, just what the subtitle says.

What it doesn’t say — and only climbers can appreciate it in these terms — is that it’s about a beautiful climb up the legendary Liberty Ridge route and a horrible, fluke accident on the descent that anyone that has crossed a glacier can, at a minimum identify with the fear.

The timing of the release of this book was impeccable for me because I’ve been obsessing over Mount Rainier this past few months. The key event in the book is about how Davidson and his friend and partner Mike Price fell into a deep crevasse and Davidson’s amazing self rescue. The rescue — or rather, the escape — is the central action part of the story and must be read to fully appreciate, so I will say no more. The Ledge‘s theme of friendship gets at the heart of a relationship that can only be forged through challenging adventures like mountaineering. Davidson and Vaughn really honor the memory of Mike Price in this tale.

Aside from themes, the book also provides ample fuel for a mountain daydream of a climb up Mount Rainier’s steep Liberty Ridge on its north face. This route was one that I hoped to climb one day. It has been called an alpine classic by Steve Roper and Allen Steck in Fifty Classic Climbs of North America (1996). Of course, I never thought of an accident happening after an ascent on this route, as happened in the book. It goes to show how many hazards there are up there.

The Liberty Ridge rises from the Carbon Glacier 5,500 feet, separates the 4,000-foot Willis Wall to its eastern flank and the nearly-as-large Liberty Wall to its west. It ascends sustained 55-degree slopes, not including brief steeper portions to get around Thumb Rock (10,760 ft.) The route turns to exclusively snow and hard ice up toward Black Pyramid (12,400). The ridge meets the Liberty Cap Glacier at 13,000 feet, where the summit (14,410 ft.), Colombia Crest, is reachable.

Davidson and Vaughn make the climb sound sublime and challenging for an experienced climber. I recommend reading the book for this part alone, and to learn about Davidson’s and Price’s surprise bivy location over the Liberty Wall — that’s actually something I’d like to duplicate, though I probably wouldn’t do so intentionally either.

Overall, The Ledge is a very good story to enjoy whether you’re a climber, an armchair mountaineer, or are fascinated by human perseverance. You can’t go wrong.

Thanks for dropping by again, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

Sources: 1) Davidson, Jim and Kevin Vaughn, The Ledge: An Adventure Story of Friendship and Survival on Mount Rainier, Ballantine Books, 2011; 2) Roper, Steve and Allen Steck, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, Sierra Club, 1996; and 3) Gauthier, Mike, Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide, The Mountaineers, 1999.

What If: Mount Rainier Eruption

One feature of Mount Rainier that I haven’t covered yet and think is fascinating is its volcanic nature. More specifically, what would happen if it erupted before some of us ever get to stand on top.

The living model is Mount Saint Helens, which — as you probably know — erupted on May 1980. The eruption caused lahars (mudflows) to surge through a significant portion of the state of Washington. The news footage from the event makes me appreciate the various powers of earth, just as do other phenomena like glaciers, mountain slopes, rain storms and even sunshine. They all have a significant impact on the landscape.

While most think of lava, ash, and pumice as the biggest threats from Mount Rainier, it’s actually flooding and lahars. In fact, just a pressure explosion from trapped underground steam — rather than a major eruption involving lava — would melt the vast snow and ice reservoirs on the mountain sides in the form of glaciers, snowfall and snow fields. One of the largest glaciers, the Emmons alone is six miles long, two wide and several hundred feet deep. That’s a lot of water!

The glacier melting and mixing with the soil and rock on the mountain’s slopes would quickly overwhelm the surrounding area. It’s estimated that Orting, Washington would be struck by mudflows in one-to-two hours after a steam eruption. The town could be hit by a lahar 30 feet deep and be left buried in 15 feet of moist soil and debris. Though other estimates claim that Rainier has potential to send lahars that are 100 feet deep and they might move at a rate of 45 to 50 miles per hour.

Population-wise, the three-plus million residents around Puget Sound are the most at-risk from the mudflows that could come down the Carbon, Payallup, Nisqually and Green Rivers. 150,000 people live atop previous mudflows, and some of them having done excavating for a variety of reasons have said that they have dug up entire tree trunks and stumps in the ground. If an eruption were to occur, this group or residents would have to be notified to evacuate as quickly as possible as there will be little-to-no warning of an eruption of any kind based on current forecasting and technology. To help prevent greater impact to more people, there are attempts to limit community development in the at-risk paths.

In the end, Rainier won’t remain over two-and-a-half miles high. The Seattle skyline will have been changed and one of our classic climbing destinations will have been forever changed. While the odds are low for an eruption anytime soon, according to experts, when the event comes, it will be powerful.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

Sources: 1) Filley, Bette, The Big Fact Book About Mount Rainier: Fascinating Facts, Records, Lists, Topics, Characters and Stories, Dunamis House, 1996; and 2) “Mount Rainier: Learning to Live with Volcanic Risk,” NationalAtlas.gov.

Carpe Climb ‘Em: Follow Through on Your Life List

I began writing The Suburban Mountaineer in April 2010 to fill a void of climbing in my life. I’ve been a repressed mountaineer, though I did it to myself, really.

I fell in love with climbing in the Adirondacks and from reading Moments of Doubt, the short stories of David Roberts. I taught myself to rock climb through bouldering, an indoor gym in Niagara Falls and top roping short routes. I even practiced climbing a giant oak right in my backyard with prusiks. And Ed Palen and Bill Simes at Rock and River Guides in Keene, NY taught me to ice climb.

Instead of dreaming of thin Himalayan air I aspired to climb throughout North America. I wanted to train on Mount Rainier, even frequenting various routes during my infrequent paid vacations from my career in our nation’s capital. After one day reaching the summit via the Liberty Ridge, I expected to go to Alaska to take in the mountains from the snow, ice and mixed routes from Denali to little-known, remote peaks (some hopefully unclimbed) in the Wrangell Mountains and Brooks Range. I didn’t have to put up routes up the most striking lines in the most aggressive style like Steve House, one of my heroes then, to be satisfied. I just wanted mountain highs and exposure.

About half-a-decade ago, I came to a fork in the road, though I didn’t recognize it as one. At the time I was advancing in my career, I felt I had a little money to spend, and my love life was starting to take off. That’s when a buddy of mine moved to Alaska and he invited me to visit him. We went to all the usual sites, the Kenai Peninsula, Denali National Park, and I also did some modest climbing in the Chugach.

Since then, I haven’t climbed. I travel. I hike. But it’s been a while since I took my crampons and ice axe up a slope. My priorities changed. Now I was saving up for an engagement ring, a down payment on a home, and now a college fund! Plus, I couldn’t bear the thought of something occurring that would impact my family’s future because of an accident due to one of my hobbies. So here I write.

There was a time I used to think that I would refuse to settle into a life that didn’t support my climbing ambitions. Parents, friends, and loved ones haven’t always embraced or accepted my passion for mountaineering. Now, despite our disagreement on where alpinism ranks (which has been long since settled,) we’ve all come to a truce to enjoy the mountains and climbing in ways other than climbing them. And interestingly, it wasn’t hard – despite my lack of notable ascents – for life to be not just good but great. I have a wonderful family and a moving career I highly value to support them. In fact, when I vacation now, my family and I visit the mountains at ski resorts, like Stowe, Whistler – you know the type. I’m guaranteed to have great food, craft beers and a luxurious “bivy” for the night.

Though life is great, I look back when I visited my buddy in the forty-ninth state, and have made a how-can-I-be-so-stupid realization: I wished I climbed Mount Rainier instead. I had the time. I had the funds. The only person I was worried about was me. At that time, I thought I would have more of both in the future to do Mount Rainier later. Life took its turns and climbing gradually became considered too expensive, time consuming and risky. Maybe that will change, but not anytime soon.

The lesson is this: The best time to climb – or do whatever you dream about, for that matter – is now. Make a plan. Execute it. If you don’t, life may still turn out to be as great for you as it is for me, but you might wish you have ticked off that other accomplishment off your life list sooner when you had the chance.

Thanks again for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter, or leave me a comment about this post. Happy reading and carpe climb ‘em!

Delayed Summer and Winter Dangers on Mount Rainier

It’s been a strange season. Earthquakes normal on the western portion of North America has now hit the east coast; though it hardly qualifies as a “big one” to westerners. And in the western mountains, summer arrived late.

On Mount Rainier, summer is normally welcomed with a great deal of unofficial pomp and circumstance. With May/June coming around, the flowers start to bloom in the alpine meadows, unusual signs of life on the snow (yes, the snow) show up, and throngs of automobiles bringing tourists, hikers and climbers pass through Paradise, Longmire and Sunrise.

Interestingly, in 2011, winter and spring lingered much longer than usual… well into summer. Unusually high amounts of snowfall throughout the mountain ranges of the west coast of the US. In fact, the mountain meadows, like in Paradise Valley, have come alive at last. The alpine wildflowers are blooming now in late August – a phenomena that normally occurs months earlier.

Several hiking trails throughout the park were inaccessible and closed to “normal” summer hiking. Snowshoes or skis, ice axes and snow shovels were necessary tools to carry even in July.

But for those that were there in the wintry summer may have seen the mountain in an altogether different light and understood how harsh and exciting a winter environment the mountain can be in other parts of the year. More people were able to see the watermelon snow – an algae that grows on the snow at higher altitudes around Mount Rainier National Park that looks red as if a watermelon’s juices dripped all over.

But with all of these lingering winter conditions are the dangers that make winter and spring exciting and dangerous (both of which are mutual, in my book.) The watermelon snow could be harmful to your system, so be sure to use snow for drinking water elsewhere. Be sure to be prepared for backcountry winter travel and the dangers of avalanches. Winter traction and stability tools are also essential.

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Sources: 1) Yuasa, Mark, “Wildflowers Finally Visible on the Hillsides of Mount Rainier National Park,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, August 21, 2011; 2) Schmoe, Floyd, A Year in Paradise, Mountaineers, 1999.

The Guides of Mount Rainier

To date, 1981 was the worst year on Mount Rainier in terms of climbing deaths. That year, eleven climbers died in an ice fall along the Ingraham Glacier. Lesser incidents happen frequently and people get hurt from the various occupational hazards of mountaineering every year on the mountain. Often when trouble happens, someone whips out their cell phone and dials 911 and then maybe the Global Rescue Hotline.

The climbers in danger often get through to a dispatch involving the Washington police or to the National Park Service. However, it isn’t the park rangers or the police that often arrive first, but rather the professional mountain guides from Alpine Ascents International (AAI), International Mountain Guides (IMG), or Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI), the three guide “concessions” permitted to lead groups on Mount Rainier by the National Park Service. They’re presence is nearly perpetual throughout the busy climbing season from May through September.

The Rainier guides’ often serve as first responders to their own groups and other climbers ascending and descending the slopes independently. They can respond with first aid, technical equipment for a crevasse rescue, leadership and an enhanced line of communication with other help providers. Notably, guides must be physically fit to endure a slog to the summit but then have the stamina, whenever necessary, to go the extra mile for when something horrible occurs.

Their knowledge of the mountain and its conditions are invaluable in these circumstances, but perhaps the most crucial element is their “bedside manner.” Most guides are hired not because of their climbing resumes (they often become star climbers after serving as a Rainier guide) but because they have both the knowledge and fitness required but also the ability to teach the skills of climbing and have patience doing so. They will show you how to get your harness on, tie into a rope party, and slow themselves down to go at their client’s pace.

The Rainier guides have a lot of admirable qualities, whether you experience an accident or are being shepherded up the mountain, just based on their job description and how they have been utilized. Regardless of the proverbial safety net around the mountain, we should all be stronger, more knowledgeable and have more patience too. Those things keep us all safer.

Thanks again for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please considering following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter.

Sources: 1) 2009 Accidents in North American Mountaineering, American Alpine Club, 2009; 2) Mount Rainier National Park website; 3) Filley, Bette, The Big Fact Book About Mount Rainier: Fascinating Facts, Records, Lists, Topics, Characters and Stories, Dunamis House, 1996; 4) Viesturs, Ed, with David Roberts, No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the Worlds 14 Highest Peaks, Broadway Books, 2006.

Rainier’s Cramped Camp Muir

If you’re trying to reach Mount Rainier’s summit (14,410 ft./4,392 m.), most climbers pass through Camp Muir on its southern face. It makes sense. At 10,080 ft. (3,072 m.), it is the most accessible fixed camp to any trailheads to get you in position for the summit day, assuming you are trying to get up and down in two to three days.

It is named for John Muir (of course) because it is located at the same location that he, Philemon Beecher Van Trump and five others camped in during the ascent of August 1888. The site was suitably protected from some of the winds that strike the mountain by the nearby rock features. Since then, the area has been a common halfway point when ascending from the Paradise Valley.

The first hut was built there in 1916. It was the size of a large bathroom or a small bedroom and its stone walls were three feet thick. In 1921, a bigger hut was established and the 1916 structure was made into the Park Company’s guide house on the mountain and later into a cooking house used by the guide concessions. Today, the National Park Service says there is enough space to sleep 110 people there. But when they say “space,” they don’t mean within the walls of the buildings. While the camp is first come first served, permits from the National Park Service regulate the capacity of the Camp Muir area. Don’t be surprised if you need to pitch your tent nearby.

Climbing guide author Mike Gauthier recommends navigating by compass on the ascent; fog, white out or other conditions of low visibility can make the terrain very difficult to read. He also says a map from the park rangers with compass bearings to Camp Muir is also very helpful. Once you arrive, you can take a rest and take in the view, like at the Mount Rainier National Park’s new Camp Muir Webcam.

The route to the summit from Camp Muir takes several different paths, while the path to camp from Paradise is one herding trail. So in many ways, the route fans out from there, and the 110 capacity is often met in the popular summer months and around the weekends.

It has to be said: This is not a route to gain a wilderness experience. It is popular, crowded and often uncomfortable. People pack into the fixed shelters and sleep very close. Everyone still shares the established toilets. As Bette Filley put it in her book, The Big Fact Book About Mount Rainier, “Some have described Camp Muir as half way to Heaven, while others claim it’s half way to Hell.”

The key is to keep in mind you’re climbing to the summit and not Camp Muir. It’s just a check point along the journey.

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Sources: 1) Gauthier, Mike, Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide, The Mountaineers Books, 1999; 2) Filley, Bette, The Big Fact Book About Mount Rainier: Fascinating Facts, Records, Lists, Topics, Characters and Stories, Dunamis House, 1996; and 3) National Park Service website.