Liberty Ridge on Mount Rainier

Camp on Curtis Ridge

Camp on Curtis Ridge

Liberty Ridge is a true classic.  It appears in Roper & Steck's "Fifty Classic Climbs of North America" and deserves the reputation of being physically demanding and committing.  After building up mountaineering and ice climbing skills over the past few years, this route crept onto my radar more and more until it was front and center.

Goran, Bram, and I had initially planned to take on Liberty Ridge over the long Memorial Day Weekend, but new snow and foul weather dashed our plans.  Goran and I conditioned up in the lower Enchantments that weekend instead, climbing Colchuck and Dragontail Peaks in less than ideal weather.  With the promise of clearer skies the next weekend, we all planned to take Monday off and give the somewhat infamous route a try.

After an early start in Seattle on Saturday and a stop in Tacoma to borrow a light 3-person tent, we chatted up the rangers in the White River Ranger Station.  It was at this point we learned that two other attempts had been made so far this spring—one ended in frostbite and bailing at Thumb Rock, the other ended with a broken leg, avalanche scare, and heli-rescue from near Liberty Cap.  Hmm.  We knew that our first day or two would not be committing or difficult, so we started in regardless.

Hiking and skinning from the trailhead at 4,400 feet up to the base of the Interglacier and then up over St. Elmo's pass (7,500 feet) went without incident, though we started late enough in the day that the pass was sloppy mashed potatoes and required a bunch of switchbacks.  We dropped down a bit and crossed the Winthrop Glacier without incident before rising to another ridge, dropping down again, and gaining sight of Curtis Ridge—our destination for the night.  We made it to the ridge, quickly set up camp and made dinner, and jumped into our cozy tent.  The view of the route from Curtis Ridge is a bit intimidating because it's impossible to see how steep things are with the ridge jutting out straight at you.

Early in the morning, after a strong dose of coffee, we descended slightly, hit the moraine of the Carbon Glacier, and crossed onto the angry-looking river of frozen snow below most of the crevasses.  There were two clear options for reaching the higher slopes of the glacier and we decided to take the more direct one, which involved roping up, boot packing, and a bit of wallowing in deep snow.  Once back on gentler slopes, we put the skis back on and skinned up as close to the bergschrund as we could.  We were in and out of clouds at this point and it was hard to navigate, but things cleared up as we hit the final slopes below the ridge. Crossing the moat wasn't too tough and we quickly found ourselves under the ridge with a constant stream of small rocks dropping down the snow chutes.

The next few hours were not easy.  We wallowed in knee- to chest- deep snow as we climbed up the ridge.  The more direct snowfield to the right looked even deeper and we only traversed to it when our only other option was to pull an overhanging rock step.  The final 500 feet or so to Thumb Rock was spirit-crushing.  We each took turns at the front, stepping as high as we could, slipping back with every step and expelling a stream of profanity that would have made sailors blush.  We reached Thumb Rock (10,800 feet) at 2:30pm.  Nobody said much as we dug out a tent platform and started boiling water.  We all felt the same way—if the next few hundred vertical feet were anywhere near as strenuous, there's no way we'd reach the top; we'd have to turn around and go all the way back the way we'd come.

Crossing the rock step (which was not very rocky) at dawn

Crossing the rock step (which was not very rocky) at dawn

To maximize our chances of success, we woke up at midnight, made some coffee, and were moving by about 1:30am.  The first few hundred feet were unconsolidated and steep, but the early-morning temperatures helped enable faster progress.  I was in the lead, trying to thread the needle between the rock buttresses above me, and succeeded in bringing us higher to more consolidated ground.  Sweet Jesus, we were happy to meet more consolidated snow and faster progress.  We continued to trade off turns in the front and slowly made progress toward the 'rock step' around 6:45am.  I cut to the ridge at one point and noticed that things were still pretty steep on our left, so I headed a bit higher to a feature I remembered from our scouting on Curtis Ridge.  It was a perfect place to cut across, with enough snow to make the transition quite mellow.  It was also right at dawn, so I couldn't help but bring the camera out and snag a few pictures of Goran and Bram coming across as well, silhouetted in the alpenglow.  My grin was ear-to-ear.

Lots of ice on the face

Lots of ice on the face

The left side of the ridge was much more consolidated and we made better progress for a while before deciding to take a quick ramen and sausage lunch break.  It was so damn tasty and energizing.  It was a good thing too, since the steep slopes above quickly turned to alpine ice much earlier than anticipated.  I was feeling surprisingly awesome at this point and decided to take the lead through the mix of snow and ice.  From down on Curtis Ridge, it looked like the ice hugged the right side of the slope while snow stuck to the left, so I began with a leftward traversing climb until I could see around a rise and realized that there was no snow—the whole slope was ice.  Damn.

By this point, we'd been simul-climbing for a while, usually with a screw or two in at any given time between the three of us, just in case.  We simul-climbed the last few pitches and I decided to stop, back up a few feet, and throw a picket in after plunging hip-deep in a crevasse.  Oops.  The remaining slopes to the high bergschrund were a mix of steep snow and ice with Bram leading the charge.  At one point he yelled down that we should be careful not to step into a specific hole.  I was bringing up the rear at that point and steeped in a deep boot hole from the other two, plunging into the crevasse to my chest and catching myself with my arms.  I was able to stem my legs and climb my way out without Bram or Goran knowing—best not to tell them, eh?

The final ice step

The final ice step

The final bit below the bergschrund looked dicey.  The 'schrund was a huge gap below seracs just ahead of us and the wind-loaded snow to our right didn't look free of hazards either.  I dropped a picket in next to the gap, stepped across, and headed up for a small ice step that seemed to span the gap on the extreme left end of the upper gully.  With a few ice screws and a little AI 2, we had surmounted the bergschrund and only had a bit more steep snow and ice left before the final ice pitch.  It looked awesome—all shiny and consolidated.  I don't know what had come over me that day, but I felt the best I ever had at elevation and was moving fast through the ice leads.  I quickly asked the boys if they minded if I took the final pitch lead and a 'by all means' was the response.  Great success!

Ice climbing at the top of Liberty Ridge, nearing 14,000 feet, with a view down to the Carbon Glacier, and carrying climbing, camping, and ski gear on my back was a very awesome and memorable moment.  I thought most of this trip would be Type 2 fun, but this was clearly Type 1.  I felt awesome and enjoyed a bunch of one-hit wonders as I pulled onto the top.

After bringing the boys up, we just had a couple hundred feet more to hit the top of Liberty Cap (14,112 feet).  We were all pretty smoked.  I remember the feeling of putting one foot in front of the other and being pushed forward by the wind.  There were no summit shots.  No whoops or hollers were uttered until we found shelter on the other side of the ridge and switched to skis.

After (gingerly) skiing down to the saddle and towards the Emmons Glacier, the winds picked up and were gusting something fierce.  It didn't feel safe to be on skis, so we strapped them back to our packs and started booting down the top of the Emmons. It was then that the winds really started whipping.  Gusts must have been 60-80+ as they nearly picked us up and tossed us from hunkered-down turtle positions.  We played the Wayne's World game of "car" then "game on" for what must have been two hours as we slowly traversed the top of the Emmons and headed down  This part was a little touch-and-go.  It was getting late, the winds were getting stronger, and we were getting even more tired.  We could see Camp Schurman below and just fixated on it as we endured the cross-wind gusts and tried to stay on the right path.

The last bit of the Emmons was low angle, so we put the skis back on and told our screaming quads to be quiet for another half hour or so.  Upon reaching camp, the climbing ranger came out to greet us, mentioning that he had been watching us for some time as we disappeared in the wind squalls carrying spindrift, then reappeared as things cleared between gusts.  He offered for us to warm up in the shelter and drink some water he'd melted up.  It was incredible.

With the poles from our tent missing, we borrowed two 2-person tents from the ranger, set them up, and quickly crawled inside.  We didn't have much food left since we'd initially planned to go down that night, so I ate my emergency ration of tuna before hitting they hay in our dug out shelter.

Morning came quickly—more quickly than planned, in fact.  All of our phones and alarms were dead, so we woke with the sun a couple hours later than planned, but quickly packed up, side-hilled to the saddle above the Interglacier, and skied down hard snow back to the trail, which we hiked out quickly to try and make something of the workday.  A quick pit stop at the Albertson's for chocolate milk, fried chicken, and carrot cake helped to reduce our calorie debt.

What an adventure.

See Bram's report here: http://www.bramski.org/climbing/not-your-average-adventure-liberty-ridge/