Mt Rainier – Liberty Ridge (IV 60° 4303m)

Kyle, Zach and I climbed Liberty Ridge on May 26th-29th, 2018.  Together, we achieved a collective dream – a dream that felt too intimidating for me to imagine just years ago. Liberty Ridge is an exceptional line in an absolutely wild setting, splitting the North Face of Mt Rainier between Willis Wall and Liberty Wall, two of the most dangerous alpine walls in the lower 48.  According to the National Parks Service, the route sees around 100 climbers making attempts each year, with a 30-60% success rate depending on the year.  We found varied conditions on consistently steep, varied and technical terrain.

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Crossing the Winthrop Glacier to reach Curtis Ridge (out of view).

After getting our permits at the White River Ranger Station on Saturday morning, we casually started hiking toward the mountain.  Today was going to be a easy day, and conserving energy was a key part of our strategy.  We lollygagged up the trail, through snowfields, and over St. Elmo’s Pass.  Once we dropped onto the Winthrop Glacier, we roped up.  Crossing the glacier was straightforward and we did not need crampons in the soft snow. Soon we found our way onto Curtis Ridge, where we caught our first view of the route.

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Intimidating views from camp on Curtis Ridge.

All three of us sat down on Curtis ridge and gawked at the climb.  It is huge, steep and scary looking! The first thing I noticed, however, was how broken up the Carbon Glacier looked.  There appeared to be no access to the right side of the ridge – where the route normally goes, given that the right side of the ridge is lower angle than the left.  We could tell that the Liberty Ridge itself was already in mid-late season conditions, with significant rock melted out low on the route and blue ice glaring in the afternoon sun above the Black Pyramid.  This was not going to be a snow slog.

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Getting ready to roll on day 2.

After a nap, we set up camp and watched a team start up the Carbon Glacier alarmingly late in the day.  The terrifying seracs (ice cliffs) that cap Willis Wall threaten the Carbon Glacier with significant avalanche hazard, and the wall itself is constantly shedding rock.  The team placed their tent on the Carbon Glacier, directly in the path of anything that came off the wall, but at least they weren’t right underneath it.  At one point, I poked my head out of the tent to watch a massive avalanche rip off of the Willis Wall – the debris cloud came very close to the bivy site that the team chose.  That seemed akin to playing Russian Roulette, but I guess that everything is a matter of degrees. There were two smaller avalanches later in the evening.

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Sunrise from Curtis Ridge. Photo: Kyle
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Crossing the Carbon Glacier toward the ridge.  Photo: Zach

In the morning, we dropped onto the Carbon Glacier at about 7200′ and started moving toward the ridge.  This was a gnarly glacier! I could see hundreds of crevasses, and you never know what’s lurking under the surface. There’s always a moment when you step or jump over a crack when you can see into its depths – many of these crevasses simply faded to black because they were so deep. Thankfully, there was a good boot pack from previous teams, which we followed in a circuitous path to the toe of the ridge. Here, we scrambled up a “boulder problem” that felt spicy given that we were wearing crampons, had 30 pound backpacks, and still were roped up for glacier travel.  What really made this exciting was the extremely poor nature of the rock on Mt Rainier – I don’t think any of the holds we used were actually attached to the mountain.  A high right foot was key.  Finally, we were on Liberty Ridge!

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Kyle busting a move on the boulder problem that gave access to the ridge. Loose!

Once we gained the ridge proper, I coiled up the rope and stuffed it in my pack.  We cruised upward on alternating snow and rock, making quick progress.  Normally, climbers take snow slopes on the right side of the ridge, but we stayed on or near the ridge crest.  There was another exciting boulder problem that allowed passage to the snow field that led to our bivy at Thumb Rock.

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Third-classing on loose rock near the bottom of the ridge.  You can see two teams following behind us.  Photo: Kyle
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Zach taking in the view from the Thumb Rock bivy (10,400′).

We arrived at Thumb Rock around 9:15am – it had been a short morning of climbing, but we knew the next day would be massive.  We ate, drank water, and napped like it was our job.  When we finally began getting ready for bed, I realized that my inflatable sleeping pad popped and no longer held air – so I slept on the rope, which I coiled onto the floor of the tent.  To add insult to injury, the winds picked up and kept me awake all night. When the alarm went off at 2am, I was ready to get up.

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My squash face on summit day.
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Making progress high on the ridge, with some exposure to keep us focused.  Photo: Kyle

We packed our bags and started soloing upward on the steep, hard snow.  The wind was absolutely blasting but the skies were clear.  After passing through the constriction above and to the left of Thumb Rock, we encountered more easy mixed climbing.  The sun was starting to rise and we realized just how high (and exposed) we were. Soon, we had covered 2000 vertical feet and climbed around the Black Pyramid. We roped up here, agreeing to simulclimb the consistent 55-60 degree ice. Kyle did a fantastic job leading 800+ feet of ice in two simul blocks with one ice tool and one ultralight mountaineering axe – beastly!

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Zach cruising, and a little blurry.
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Kyle questing on brittle ice above the black pyramid.  Ice climbing season never ends!

As we were nearing the top of the ice, we heard a massive rumble.  We glanced over to the Willis Wall and watched an absolutely massive avalanche rip.  Zach saw the serac collapse that started the event – he estimated that the ice block that released from the serac was 300 feet by 100 feet in size. This was without a doubt one of the most impressive things I’d ever seen.  Kyle, Zach and I could hardly believe that we had a front row seat to such massive natural destruction. We spoke with an avalanche educator on another climbing team who called it a D4 avalanche – huuuuge. Humbling.

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The Willis Wall avalanche. Photo: Kyle

We stayed roped up after the ice pitches, climbing steep snow and névé through the bergschrund which offered no technical challenge.  The wind was getting especially brutal at this point, making it even more difficult to breathe than normal at 14,000 feet.  Several times, I was knocked off balance by a gust of wind – classic Mt Rainier conditions!

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Kyle adjusting layers high on the ridge.

Finally, we reached Liberty Cap (14,112′) which is the logical end of the Liberty Ridge climbing route.  We discussed going to the true summit at 14,401′, but we’d already done what we came to do and opted to descend.

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Cold, tired, happy, inspired. Summit!

I led us down the Emmons Glacier to Camp Schurman with only a few helpful suggestions from my partners on route finding and glacier safety – thanks guys.  They both have experience on the Emmons glacier, but it seemed like a good opportunity for me to practice glacier travel and navigation. I feel like a pretty knowledgeable climber, but there is always more to learn.

This was a worthy outing for my first climb on Mt Rainier – an undisputed classic.

Strategy Notes

Reference the Liberty Ridge Route Brief produced by the National Parks Service.  We used a “light and slow” strategy, taking three days for the climb.  Each day was reasonable on its own, but this is a very physical outing!

Splits:

White River Trailhead to Curtis Ridge: 6:40

Curtis Ridge to Thumb Rock: 3:30

Thumb Rock to summit: 6:15

Summit to White River Trailhead: 5:45

Gear Notes

We brought 2 pickets, six screws and one 60m 7.7mm rope.  We used all of it! We each carried a mini traxion as part of our personal glacier kits, and we used them on running belays as we simuclimbed the ice section.  I was happy to have two ice tools rather than one tool and one mountaineering axe.

The key to making this climb feel reasonable is to go as light as possible.  My pack weighed 34 pounds including one liter of water, the rope, food, clothing, etc for a three day trip.

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My Liberty Ridge pack.  This is roughly half the size and weight of a typical Rainier climber’s backpack.

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