Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rainier via the Kautz

Leah skiing Rainier.
The approach
With solid high pressure in the forecast, Leah and I made the pseudo-annual voyage out to Rainier.  After a long drive to Paradise and the requisite red tape meeting with the climbing rangers, we packed up for an afternoon approach to high camp on the turtle snowfield.  There had been a widespread avalanche cycle the previous week, and we saw lots of crowns at the lower and mid elevations during the approach to Glacier Vista.  We also talked to a skier who had just been carried in a wet slide descending from our intended camp.  All this information coupled with obviously saturated snow at the lower elevations gave us pause, but we headed up anyway.  You don't know until you go, right?  Snow conditions were safe enough to allow passage to a high camp below the Turtle snowfield, and we spent a beautiful evening relaxing before retiring early.
Roped up and slugging up to the Turtle snowfield.
The wind
About an hour after knocking off to sleep, I woke up to strong wind on the tent, and the remainder of the night was spent sleeping intermittently as 20-50 mph winds raged outside.  Unsure of our ability to safely climb, and downclimb if necessary, in the high winds, we did not get up with the 4 am alarm, thus abandoning our original plan to ski the Fuhrer finger.  The wind took its toll on everyone, and most of the parties on our side of the mountain were bailing as we were hemming and hawing about what to do at sunrise.  Bucking the trend, we headed up with a plan to climb to Camp Hazard and beyond if conditions permitted.  It is worth noting that a jet boil was absolutely essential for melting water in the tent, since it was way too windy to start a stove of any kind outside.

The climb
Conditions were still great when we arrived at Camp Hazard, so we roped up and committed to the exposed traverse under the seracs below the Kautz ice cliff and easily climbed the crux snow-covered ice pitches to the upper Kautz.  The wind had abated at this point, and the air temps and snow conditions were still favorable, so aside from the stress of being hours behind schedule and still fully committed to our objective, it was turning out to be an awesome day.  We stayed roped up for the upper Kautz, and proceeded with the slow march to the summit.  Somewhere along the way, the lack of oxygen caught us, and we arrived on the summit plateau tired, a little cold, and ready to start the descent.  We skied from the summit plateau, about 300 vertical feet below the top of Point Success.

Leah battling the wind near Camp Hazard.
Climbing on the upper Kautz.
The ski
The skiing was great.  The upper headwall was still icy and intimidating, but the ice held and edge, and we made our way down to better corn on the upper Kautz snowfield. The descent through the crux pitches on the lower Kautz was challenging, and we did some sideslipping and a lot of slow skiing, carefully poking around for thinly veiled patches of glacial ice.  We took the handline exit off the Kautz, which was straightforward and minimized time exposure to the Kautz ice cliff.  With the most exposed section of the route in the bag, and thousands of feet of good corn skiing below us, the stress level dropped as soon as we hit the Turtle snowfield.  We took turns arcing big easy turns down to camp, then worked our way down and across the Nisqually glacier, carefully managing wet slide and cravasse danger.  Soon enough, we were back amongst the parade of people between Paradise and Camp Muir, enjoying the easy schuss out to the car.
Leah sideslipping steep snow into the crux section of the Kautz.
Working across to the handline traverse.  The crux ice steps
and upper Kautz are visible in the background.
Good corn snow on the Turtle snowfield.
This was supposed to be an easy trip, but it wasn't.  I am becoming increasingly convinced that perfect conditions from top to bottom are nearly impossible to find on Rainier, and that it is therefore worth waiting for a stellar weather forecast combined with favorable trip reports before committing to the long drive from Missoula.

The Kautz is a good ski route, as long as the glacial ice pitches are snow covered.  The entire upper mountain is big, steep, and exposed, and the crux ice pitches are quite skiable and engaging.  The Turtle snowfield is great fun, and it is good to be separated from the inevitable concentration of parties on the Dissapointment Cleaver route (and the Fuher finger).  And while I always tell myself that Rainier is too far away, has too many rules and regulations, is too glaciated, and has too many people, I'm sure it won't be long until I am itching to go back and engage this big and inspiring mountain yet again.

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