Kautz June 20 - 25
United States Washington Paradise
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Here is a trip report from RMI's Kautz Climb on Rainier (June 20 - 15) - written by RMI guide, Mark Falender.
On the morning of June 20, the eight climbers registered for RMI’s Expedition Skills Seminar arrived at RMI BaseCamp in Ashford ready to begin their intensive six-day program. Despite a steady rain throughout the day, spirits were high as we began our preparations for our up-coming 4-day adventure on the slopes of Mt. Rainier. We started our day with some brief introductions-a chance for all of our team members to share a little bit about themselves, their past climbing experiences, their training and preparation for this climb, and the goals they hoped to achieve in the next few days. As is typical with any RMI program, our team contained the full spectrum of participants—several first-time mountaineers mixed together with a slightly more seasoned crew that climbed the Disappointment Cleaver route last season. Despite our different backgrounds, we all agreed on our objectives for the week: to learn basic mountaineering skills, to develop a greater sense of self reliance in the mountains, to physically and mentally challenge ourselves, and to attempt to summit Mt. Rainier. With our program goals clearly defined we set off on the rest of our preparations.
We spent the remainder of our Technical Training Day preparing for the likely challenges of a multi-day expedition on Mt. Rainier. We discussed our itinerary, our role as visitors in Mt. Rainier National Park, the potential hazards of mountaineering, the obstacles we were likely to encounter along the way, and the skills and techniques we would need to develop in order to safely achieve our goals. By mid morning, the talking was over and it was time for action. We went through a personal equipment check piece by piece, not only making sure everybody had what they needed, but also that everything was in working order and ready to go. Then we did the same with our group gear—tents, stoves, ropes, shovels, probes, pickets, wands… It takes a lot of time to go through so much stuff, but we didn’t want to have any surprises up on the mountain, and we finished with enough time for everybody to learn the basic knots and hitches used in mountaineering—a skill set we would refer back to numerous times throughout our seminar.
When we met again on Tuesday morning for our One Day Mountaineering School, the clouds were still thick over Ashford, but reports from Camp Muir suggested clearing weather higher on the mountain. Indeed, when we got off of the shuttle at Paradise, the clouds were thinning out, blue sky was occasionally poking through, and we even saw the sun a few times—a seemingly rare occurrence around here in the last few weeks of spring. We took advantage of the pleasant conditions to have a relaxing, but critically important on-snow training day, learning and practicing efficient climbing techniques—proper breathing, balanced walking, foot placement, and ice axe techniques—as well as vital safety skills like the ice axe self arrest and team arrest. We finished the day with a review of all of the knots and hitches we learned yesterday—a chance for everyone to prove that they had been practicing all night –and a demonstration of crevasse rescue. Although our day together ended here, everyone had quite a bit more work to this evening as they packed their bags for tomorrow’s early morning departure for our 4-day trip up the Kautz.
We met early in the morning on Wednesday, our packs fully loaded with all of the gear and food we would need for our 4-day journey up the Kautz route. The clear blue skies, warm weather, and enthusiasm for beginning our adventure helped disguise the burden on our backs. Although we began from Paradise on the well-worn boot track that leads to Camp Muir, we didn’t follow the popular trail for long. After our first break at Glacier Vista, we veered over to the Nisqually Glacier. Little did we know that the post-holing we began here would be a continued theme and significant obstacle for the next few days. We traveled roped together across the Nisqually and up onto the Wilson Glacier. As the sun beat down, the travel got increasingly difficult as the snow deteriorated and the waist-deep post-holes became more prevalent. We arrived at our first camp at 8100’ early in the afternoon, thankful for the clear skies and calm winds as we easily set up our tents for the first time. We ate dinner early, watched the sun set, and crawled into our sleeping bags planning on an early start the next morning to take advantage of easier travel conditions.
The 4am wake-up came quickly, and we fired up the stoves for breakfast under cloudy skies but warm weather. Our hopes for a firm frozen crust to walk on this morning didn’t seem likely, but we were all optimistic as we stuffed our packs and connected into our rope teams to head to our high camp at 11,000’. The post-holing commenced again right out of camp, but the reality of our situation didn’t become apparent until we reached steeper terrain. Our pace decreased to a crawl as we had to resort to shoveling our way through the knee deep snow. Although we usually average 1000 vertical feet per hour while climbing on Mt. Rainier, today’s pace had us moving closer to 300’ per hour. At this pace, it would take us 9 hours instead of 3 to reach our high camp. In addition, concerns about the potential avalanche hazard on the way to high camp, as well as recent reports about hazardous avalanche conditions on tomorrow’s route up the Kautz Ice Chute forced us to rethink our goals, our risk acceptance, and our likely rewards for the week. Although it was a difficult decision to make, we all eventually agreed that continuing up the route with our heavy packs and our slow pace in these difficult and potentially hazardous conditions wasn’t likely to lead to successful outcome. We reevaluated the objective we set on Monday morning and determined to make the best out of the conditions by setting up camp at a rock feature called The Castle, where we practiced skills like rope ascension, rappelling, and snow-anchor construction for the remainder of the afternoon. With a forecasted drop in the freezing levels and clear skies overnight we were again hopeful for easier travel conditions in the morning, and made plans to wake up early for a climb to base of the Kautz Ice Chute.
4am came quickly again, but this morning the temps were slightly cooler and the sky was clear. We left our camp at 9,200’ with light packs well before sunrise. A thin, but supportive frozen crust allowed us to climb easily with our crampons on—a new skill for many—up the edge of the Turtle Snowfield. The sun slowly rose behind us as we made our way up towards the base of the Kautz Ice Chute. We took a few quick breaks along the way as we climbed just over 2,000 vertical feet to our high point at 11, 300’. We had a nice view of the upper part of the Kautz climbing route, including the Ice Chute, and were able to confirm for ourselves the potential avalanche hazard that kept the route out of condition for the time being. It was 8:30 in the morning when we started our descent back to camp and already the snow had started to soften. It wasn’t long before we were plunge stepping through knee-deep snow for the last 1000’ back to camp. The day wasn’t over at this point though, as we spent the entire afternoon practicing our crevasse rescue skills—putting together all that we had learned about snow anchors, knots, and hitches into different systems for getting ourselves or our climbing partners out of trouble.
Our final day of the climb required descending from our high camp at 9200’ back to Paradise (5400’). Given the conditions over the past few days, we decided that an early start was our best hope for easier travel conditions. We fired up the stoves at 2am under starry skies and packed our camp with the light of our headlamps. By 4am we were roped up and travelling downhill with our crampons on over a thin crust. The climbing was difficult as the firm crust often gave way under our feet, making for unpredictable post-holing. We were all excited to make it to back to the Nisqually Glacier before the sun hit the slopes and made the travel any more arduous. After 5 hours of climbing we arrived back in the Paradise parking lot just as most climbers were beginning their day. Back in Ashford, we all celebrated a successful climbing adventure. Although we didn’t reach the summit of Mt. Rainier, everybody left excited about their accomplishments over the last few days, proud of their ability to adapt to the conditions and make the most of their time in the mountains, and excited to return to Mt. Rainier next season for another attempt.