Mt Rainier – Ptarmigan Ridge (IV AI3)

Karsten Foerster and I snagged an ascent of Mt Rainier’s Ptarmigan Ridge from June 30 – July 1, 2022, finding excellent conditions that scratched the mid-summer ice climbing itch.

The North face of Mt Rainier. Ptarmigan Ridge ascends (roughly) the right hand skyline, though the meat of the steeper climbing is out of view. Note the interesting point-release avalanches on the steep sides of the ridge at right, which we climbed on the crest to reach high camp.

When I returned home from my Denali expedition in mid June, I immediately began hearing about the weather patterns that I had missed while I was busy avoiding sunburn and frostbite at the same time. It had been a cool, wet June in Washington for the first time in a LONG time. Recent seasons have been exceedingly hot, so this was a welcome change of pace. Despite swearing that I was going to stick to rock climbing for the rest of the summer, the weather patterns pushed my mind to the North face of Mt Rainier.

I climbed Liberty Ridge with Zach and Kyle in 2018, getting my first taste of this fantastic and remote side of Tahoma. That route was one of my first introductions to true “big mountain terrain” like I would later find in Peru and Alaska – so awesome to have this kind of scale and complexity in my home state! There is nowhere outside the Cascades in the lower 48 where you can find glaciated terrain on this scale (or any scale, for that matter). The north wall is home to a handful of routes that make you feel like you are climbing in the greater ranges – I was hooked on the challenge and adventure after our success on Liberty Ridge. In 2019 I headed back with the same team, attempting Ptarmigan Ridge to the high camp at 10,300′ where we bailed due to higher than acceptable freezing levels – I wasn’t willing to be in the firing range below unfrozen, crumbling rock and seracs. This year, the weather forecast was a perfect recipe: clear and cold. Kyle and Zach were not available, so I got connected with Karsten who was stoked to go for a last-minute mission to take advantage of the final days of a high pressure system. After a frantic packing session and 3 hours of sleep, I hit the road toward Mt Rainier.

Karsten had already secured our permits by the time I rolled up at 8am, allowing us to immediately hit the trail from White River. I had never met Karsten before but we had plenty to talk about! Among other topics, we marveled at a wild coincidence a few years ago, when we each climbed the Northeast Rib of Johannesberg Mountain on the same day, each of us on seperate teams! We never ran into each other on this giant, complicated route that is not often climbed. I knew that if Karsten could climb Johannesberg, he must have some serious stoke and skills for alpine weirdness.

Taking in the views while traversing the right to 10,300′ high camp.

After leaving White River trailhead, we dawdled through forests, up moraines, over ridges, and across three major glaciers to reach Ptarmigan Ridge proper. Our route ascended snowy slopes until we gained the surprisingly sharp ridge crest, which we followed to a comfortable bivy site at 10,300′, just out of danger from the spooky Liberty Wall. I found myself falling asleep to the sounds of serac avalanches for the second time this month.

The technical portion of the route at sunset. The route climbs from the lower right, up the leftward trending ramp, and eventually follows a series of couloirs to reach the ridge crest. The Liberty Wall serac is obvious on the left.
The Liberty Wall at sunset. Photo: Karsten

The occasional rumbling of avalanches continued all night and through our 2am wake up. To reach the start of the technical climbing we would need to cross underneath the Liberty Wall serac, easily the single largest objective hazard on an undoutedly dangerous outing. I was not happy to be doing this mental dance with myself again so soon; I’d only been home from Denali for a couple of weeks, which had been a very intense experience.

Calculating risk in the mountains is an art. There is no right or wrong, just choices and consequences. The problem with decisions about objective hazard is that you evaluate each choice based on potential consqeuence, but judge the quality of those decisions in retrospect by their actual outcomes rather than what could have been. It’s usually impossible to tell if you are making good calls or just getting lucky, which makes it easy to accept more and more risk over time. To have a long alpine climbing career, you have to be both smart and lucky.

The start of the seemingly endless leftward rising traverse. Photo: Karsten
Karsten motoring up moderate ice.

Regardless of my trepidation, we dropped down from our bivy site and scurried past piles of icy avalanche debris under the serac. A recent rockfall event had left a number of large boulders sitting atop the ice, reminding us that ice and snow were not the only things that could fall off of this mountain. Once we reached the bergschrund, I led a pitch of AI3 and caught myself yawning my way through the crux, feeling lethargic and comfortable in this wild place. From here, we simulclimbed a 1000 foot rising traverse on moderate alpine ice, which was technically easy but physically exhausting. My calves were taking a tremendous beating doing this much frontpointing up consistently mellow terrain. Paradoxically, truly steep ice climbing feels much easier on the calves and ankles than this 50-60 degree ice. My body got a break when we found a steeper pitch of waterfall ice after an exposed traverse section; this pitch was not the easiest route available but was just too good looking to pass up. God DAMN I love ice climbing!

Me following the exposed traverse at (roughly) 11,000′. Photo: Karsten
Karsten enjoying high quality waterfall ice on the WI3 pitch.
Karsten taking point on a big simul block of 60 degree ice. The rock bastion above is by far the best rock I’ve seen on Rainier. Finally, we were under something that didn’t look like it was going to topple over at any moment!
Karsten climbing more (!) moderate ice. This all looked like snow, but was actually solid ice that required methodical climbing.

The 50-60 degree ice seemed never ending as we swung and kicked our way upward. Finally, we reached the crux of the route, a rock chimney that normally requires 5.6 rock climbing. Amazingly, it was completely full of waterfall ice that went at WI3 – not bad for July in the Cascades. I’ve never heard of anyone finding these conditions outside of the 2022 season! If you’ve climbed Ptarmigan Ridge, please leave a comment below about the conditions you found and when you climbed it. From the top of the chimney pitch at 12,200′, I led us to the top of Liberty Cap where Karsten took point on the descent down the Emmons-Winthrop route, showing off his expert glacier navigation skills. Motivated to sleep in my own bed, I drove home that night, arriving at midnight to round out a 42 hour roundtrip Spokane to Spokane.

Karsten leading the “rock chimney” in AI3 condition.
Looking down the short but sweet “rock” chimney pitch. Photo: Karsten

Gear Notes

We brought six screws, one picket, two pitons and a half set of nuts after we got some recent beta that the route was very icy. For more typical conditions, more rock gear would be necessary. I highly recommend a knifeblade piton, we would have used one if we carried it. Another picket would be great in more snowy conditions. We would have used two more ice screws in the ultra icy conditions we found.

Strategy Notes

The haul to 10,300 high camp was easily done in a single day for us, but many choose to break this into two days – either option is reasonable. Be picky about when you attempt this route; insist on cold conditions. You will be climbing below decomposing volcanic cliffs until you top out the technical difficulties at ~12,200′. My personal risk tolerance dictates that I would not climb this route with an overnight freezing level higher than 12,000′. Even in cold conditions, start early so you can get out from under the cliffs before the sun roasts them too much.

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