My first climb on Rainier was via the Kautz Glacier in late July of 2012. At that time of year, the approach was all of 5 hours to high camp, the ice was fun, but short-lived, and the slog to the summit wasn't too tricky. I was glad to have ascents of Liberty and Ptarmigan Ridges under my belt before trying the Kautz on September 1st.
Our team of 5 slept in the parking lot on Saturday night in light rain and low visibility. That night, I comically learned the hard way that piling 3 dudes into a pickup camper is a bad idea. By the time we'd eaten breakfast at Paradise and checked in for the climb on Sunday morning, the clouds and fog had lifted a little bit, but it was very much socked in on the moraine. Route-finding in very low visibility across the Nisqually and Wilson Glaciers in late season was interesting to say the least. We crossed the Nisqually toward the waterfall at about 6,300 feet, weaving our way around some large crevasses, turned North and roped up at the edge of the Wilson (given that the normal fan approach was a death trap at this time of year).
The route up the Wilson looked improbable and we could only see it every so often through the clouds. I snapped a photo during one of those breaks to reference later, if necessary. While it seemed improbable, it ended up not being all that challenging. Some of the crevasse crossings were a bit spicy, but things were open enough that we could see what to trust and what not to. We traversed over toward the rock and stayed pretty close to it on the left edge, continuing past it to the NW. Once we rounded the corner around 7,400 feet, it was smooth sailing over toward the normal exit from the fan and some faint boot prints were visible.
On my earlier ascent of the Kautz, we stayed on snow almost the entire way to camp. This time, we were on and off it, spending much of the time from 8,400 feet to The Turtle at 9,800 or so on rock. The Turtle was heavily sun-cupped and offered an easier way up than the ridge. We found a good site at 10,800 feet with running water just to the East and turned in around 9pm. What had taken 5 hours in late July had taken 8+ this time.
We decided to get started early, expecting more ice and route-finding challenges, so we awoke at 3am and were moving by 4am, fueled by Sin Dawg and coffee. It only took 45 minutes to ascend to the rap, drop down, cross the icefall, and hit the base of the route. The first pitch was pretty straightforward, but much longer, more sustained, and with steeper sections than when I'd done it before. There were few sun cups for rests. Some of it was blue ice, but much of it had a snowy crust that produced great sticks. We simul-climbed much of it and I put in an intermediate anchor to re-rack about 60m up before climbing another 30m+ of lower-angle ice. From there, the snow between pitches was short and still icy. I ran us up to the base of the upper pitch and set up a belay off a screw off to the right side.
The upper pitch was great. The lower snow level had revealed much more ice than usual and, when the steeper part (which was about 40m on its own) eased up, it was still icy for another 60m or more. I led and spaced the combined team's screws (about 12 total) and we simul-climbed this whole section up to an area where the angle eased and we could rest on sun cups. The amount of ice on the route was close to on par with my experience on Liberty Ridge and I was really glad that we all brought two tools and a pole as opposed to one tool and an axe.
All of that ice took some serious time despite the simul-climbing and it was about 11am by the time we were out of the upper Kautz at about 13,000 feet on the rock rib. We melted some snow there and then set off around a large ice fall on the upper Nisqually. We had to navigate around a bunch of big crevasses up there, including a huge one that pushed us most of the way back across the saddle to Point Success before we were able to swing back East and hit the summit crater.
It was about 2pm at this point and the wind was howling out of the NW. Given the time of day and conditions, we made the right call to consider this point at little over 14,200 feet our summit. The 50 mph winds pushed us down the DC, which was uneventful, albeit long. The sunset from Camp Muir, with Adams poking above a bed of clouds was pretty memorable.
I'm pretty proud of this late-season ascent of the Kautz and have to say how impressed with the 3 members of our team who had never been up Rainier before. Nice work, team!