Dakota Jones Mount Rainier Exploration

Let’s begin with snow. Pay close attention, because this is some technical stuff.

There are many different types of snow, most of which I have never heard of and don’t care about. Powder is great for skiing but shit for running. Crusty snow is something I sort of just invented a name for, but which basically refers to a type of snow with a strong topmost surface that allows for running. Weak crusty snow is the same thing but weaker, so you occasionally bust through in a terrible, terrible posthole. And finally, slush is just snow with a nasty, soft, snowcone consistency. All other types of snow are irrelevant to the point of this article, so put them out of your mind.

Out! Now!

Anyway, Colorado often has great crusty snow in the late spring and early summer, as long as you get up high early enough to avoid ruining your shins or enthusiasm for the mountains via postholing. Washington state, however, has a remarkably different climate, at least in the western part. Whereas Colorado gets about -10 inches of rain per year (evaporation?), the Cascade Range just east of Seattle gets rain constantly. Nonstop. The base of Mt. Rainier – the focus peak of this article – receives an average of like 650 inches of snow per year, according to the Park Service map I briefly read and mostly forgot. That’s quite a difference. And that’s not all. Because the Cascades are right next to the ocean, they have a much more temperate climate (just go with me on this; I have two years of college under my belt) and much wetter snow. And did I mention they get a lot more snow than Colorado? I would like to stress that point using another figure. Right now Colorado has to pretty much buy snow from other states (it’s an exaggeration, for chrissakes), but the Paradise Lodge at the base of Mt. Rainier boasted an astonishing fifteen feet of snow on June first this year. The point of all this? Colorado has good snow when it has snow at all, but Washington? My one trip to Washington indicates that it has deep snow all the time. Let’s move forward.

I ran a fifty-mile race at the end of June that you have all since forgotten about because Dakota Jones is old news, and then flew straight to Washington for ten days of climbing on and around Mt. Rainier. The first day I got there I basically collapsed in exhaustion and returned to the city for recuperation. Two days later I was back and ready to go… two thousand feet up into clouds and wind and rain, then back down to my car for two days under grey skies. Real productive. By last weekend I had finished two books and was bouncing off the walls with energy, ready to actually do something on a mountain. Fortunately, on Friday the weather cleared, and I ascended onto the glaciers.

For five days I roamed Mt. Rainier. I began with Paradise and explored the lower southern slopes the mountain, coming into close contact with the great Nisqually Glacier and watching the sub-peak of Little Tahoma poke in and out of the clouds. From there I traveled on the national park roads to the north, visiting old-growth forests situated in the greenest, most vibrant landscape I have ever seen. In the light grey drizzle the trees were illuminated, almost glowing with ancient color. The moss and the ferns and the deep black earth offered a different view of a mountain landscape. I saw the land close up, valuing individual trees for their size rather than the whole of the mountains, the way I’m used to doing from up high. The micro was even more complex than the macro.

Arriving on the north side of the peak, I spent several days in the White River drainage, which flows out of the Emmons Glacier. I climbed and ran ridges, explored glaciers and had a few electrifying glissade descents that nearly ruined me. The point? Reconnaissance. Exploration. Discovery. One can read a map and learn the landscape, and then one can climb into the mountains and understand the landscape. I had free time and interest to spare–I wanted nothing more than to explore.

Glaciers, in case you’re unaware, are great masses of ice that flow downhill. As they encounter obstructions such as turns or uneven flooring or my iron will, they bend and crack, creating enormous crevasses that can swallow climbers whole. During the winter and well into the spring and occasionally the summer, snow accumulates over these cracks and sometimes hides them, creating snow bridges that are sometimes strong enough to hold a person’s weight, and sometimes are as thin as paper. On a mountain like Rainier, glacier travel is unavoidable, so the state of the crevasses and snow bridges are of utmost importance. However, these snow bridges and the crevasses and the glacier in general are constantly changing, with the result that glaciers are super dangerous. You shouldn’t go on them, ever.

Mount Rainier - Winthrop Glacier

The gi-hugic Winthrop Glacier con crevasse. Photo: Dakota Jones

I, on the other hand, go on them all the time. But remember–I’m 22 and fit. I couldn’t possibly get hurt. No 22-year-old flooded with motivation and enthusiasm has ever been hurt in the mountains, so I knew I would be okay. That is, I knew I would be okay as long as I didn’t go anywhere near Mt. Rainier. On the first day of clear weather, I climbed up the north side of the mountain towards the Emmons Glacier, which may or may not be the largest glacier by area in the contiguous United States (that park service map was probably pretty informative, if I had paid attention). As I neared the halfway hut at 9,500’ I saw firsthand the great crevasses of the Emmons, and genuine fear flooded my heart. As I looked for the first time upon that glacier and contemplated climbing it by myself, my mind envisioned horrific scenarios of snow bridges collapsing and sending me tumbling hundreds–literally hundreds–of feet into the glacier. Silent and shattered, I would disappear.

Glaciers are dangerous, and I was scared. And that wasn’t out of a complete lack of experience. I have spent many days traveling on glaciers in the Alps, and while climbing in Alaska this spring I lived on a glacier and skied around them freely. But wherever I have been on glaciers, I have been with a partner. I have followed the standard protocol of roping up so that if one person falls through a crevasse he can be arrested by the other, thereby initiating a level of protection that makes glacier travel possible. By myself on the north slopes of Rainier, however, I didn’t have the protection of the rope. And to make things worse, the weather was unseasonably warm. After a huge winter and spring of snowfall, this past weekend the skies cleared and temperatures on the lower mountain shot well up into the 80s F, and the freezing level was actually above the summit. That meant that even at night the snow on the mountain was never freezing into a hard and climbable crust. It also meant that the snow bridges spanning crevasses were in a constant state of degeneration that was never renewed by a hard freeze at night. As I stood on the shoulder of rock at Camp Schurman and stared upward at the rapidly deteriorating conditions on the Emmons Glacier, I knew that I could go no further without taking undue risk. So I laid down and looked at the clouds for a while.

To be honest, I had arrived with a dream in mind. For over fifty years climbers have been steadily lowering the speed record on Mt. Rainier. Given my recent experiences on Mont Blanc and in Alaska, I figured that sort of speed record attempt would be just my style. So I gave myself 10 days to explore the mountain and, if possible, break the speed record. The bad weather at the beginning of the trip certainly didn’t help matters, but I hoped that as the weather cleared, so would conditions come into form.

Alas, the heat changed everything. The deep snow lingering low on the route should have been a great aid to speed, if only it were strong enough to withstand footsteps. But the warm air lingering on the peak made for what were quite likely the slowest conditions possible. The snow was deep and dense, packed into great piles that thankfully prevented postholing, but less thankfully formed several inches of slush on top. Even at 5:00 in the morning, every uphill step sunk in to my ankles, and running downhill had me sinking in to mid-shin depth. My feet were instantly soaked, but that wasn’t the problem. I can deal with wet feet. The problem was that each step required nearly twice the normal effort, just to maintain purchase. Needless to say, I quickly realized a speed record was not in the cards for this trip.

So I explored the peak. After my retreat from the Emmons Glacier I returned to the Paradise side with two friends from Boulder, two outdoor filmmakers with whom I was to make a short video. We had hoped to film a new record, but since that wasn’t happening we instead switched gears to how much I just love the mountains, man, and like, how deep I am as a person as I totally explore the world’s wild places. You know what I mean, my brothers?

Mount Rainier - Dakota Jones with Sender Films crew

Dakota Jones and the Sender Films crew high on Mt Rainier.

And that’s more or less the end of the story. In fine, hot weather, we three hiked to Camp Muir and spent a brief night, rising early the next morning to climb up to the summit of Rainier. We took our sweet time, got some video and enjoyed a clear day on a mountain that is at once an icon of the Northwest and almost never outside a blanket of clouds. In the end, that’s all I came for anyway – to explore the mountain and climb it. That I got to do both was extremely satisfying, and soon we’ll even have a cool video clip out so you can see what went into it all. Until then, I would like you to do as much research as you can on different types of snow. I know you have been holding back on looking that up since the beginning of this article, and I appreciate your restraint. But now this article is done, so you may go.

Go! Now!

There are 27 comments

  1. John

    The one time somebody came to Seattle hoping for normal late June/early July weather…and instead they get something straight out of an August "heat" wave. I'd say better luck next time but if you come over here and jinx my 80 degree early summer weather I'll be mad. That being said, it'd be cool to see the speed record get lowered again. Or you could beat Max King to his 24 hour trifecta….

  2. rob

    Were you able to get a solo permit for Rainier?! I have climbed 4 different routes on Rainier and extensively in the Cascades and have never been able to get one. I got the impression that they are very very selective in issuing them.

    Were you going to go for the record on the DC on foot? I don't think it is possible for the record to be set on foot anymore, now that the skiers have gotten it so low. Also, I think it will have to be on early season conditions when the route is more direct. The upper glacier is getting really broken up.

  3. Nefka

    Come back in Aug when all crevasses will open and it will be easy to see them and jump over them. What is the current foot speed record on Rainer? Some skiers did it in 4+ hours up and down from Paradise, but skies are faster.

  4. MikeC AK

    Dakota, I usually enjoy your writing. Your passion for the mountains is apparent, and your life decisions allow you more time on them then my life allows, therefore inspiring to me, kudos there.

    I'm not sure why this article/story is relevant to irunfar. Speed ascents make sense if a significant portion is running? Is this an important part of your race training?

    The move towards mountaineering makes sense. It's a logical progression for you, but the mountains and routes your climbing are weekend warrior level(just my opinion, and I'm sure at some point you will progress past that) and just not very interesting to me. Whereas the r2r2r FKT and similar stories are the reason I like this website.

    Just my two sense.

    1. CDG

      Mike, what is the substantive difference between a FKT in the Canyon versus a FKT (or "speed ascent," since they're essentially the same) on Rainier? Would you have not enjoyed the R2R2R story if Dakota had arrived to the Grand Canyon, pulled the plug on the attempt because the conditions were unfavorable, and gone on a fun run instead?

  5. Mark

    Great article – I love the way you write! This really captures my attitude to the mountains (I'm stuck with the much shorter British hills for now, but I love them all the same).

  6. Phil S

    "From there I traveled on the national park roads to the north, visiting old-growth forests situated in the greenest, most vibrant landscape I have ever seen. In the light grey drizzle the trees were illuminated, almost glowing with ancient color. The moss and the ferns and the deep black earth offered a different view of a mountain landscape. I saw the land close up, valuing individual trees for their size rather than the whole of the mountains, the way I’m used to doing from up high. The micro was even more complex than the macro."

    At at a time when it seems like every trail runner wants to move to Colorado, this is why the North Cascades will always be my favorite range. Glad to hear you enjoyed them, too.

    1. Brad S

      Haters always gonna hate. Dakota always offers up a unique perspective on his adventures. You do not have to read his articles if you don't like them but I'd be willing to bet the vast majority enjoy them and the different style that comes with them. I, for one, quite enjoy them.

  7. Mike T

    These critical comments crack me up. If you don't find Dakota's articles and sarcastic style of writing interesting, then why do you read them.

    I happen to like them a lot. I come from a climbing and MTBing background and have always dabbled in running a bit, but never considered myself a runner. Now that I have completed my first 100 miler(2012 Bear 100) and am hooked on the ultra scene, I am forced to finally call myself a runner.

    That said, I find it refreshing to read about runners who also climb. I have started following all these pros' running blogs this year and love seeing the technical side of getting up mountains being incorporated into their running. Before reading these blogs, I had no idea that people literally run up the Flatirons. Next time I am in Boulder, I will certainly feel the need to go finally check out those beautiful rocks and get a feel for what that is all about.

    Irunfar kicks butt and I certainly hope they would never consider eliminating Dakota's articles just because he talks about something other than running! After all, it is all just playing in the mountains, right?!?!

    1. CDG

      I agree. Applauding him for moving into mountaineering, but slagging him for not immediately tackling the hardest projects seems odd and contradictory. I, for one, am enjoying the articles.

      1. MikeC AK

        I started with a 'I usually enjoy Dakota's writing'…and I meant it. I'm just giving personal feedback, this arcticle isn't interesting to me.

        I'm not hating, I understand what he's doing. I read this website for running content, this is climbing to me and wouldn't make the cut in Alpinist or the like.

        In my opinion, R2R2R is a run, and Rainier is a climb. The difference being equipment. I'm not sure where the line is, guys like Tony K and Dakota are certainly blurring that line.

  8. MikeC AK

    The difference to me is between running and climbing. I read irunfar for running content. There is a lot going on in the climbing world right now that would overshadow this in the climbing magazines I read.

    Just my opinion and feedback.

    1. Simon

      Just a thought… don't read it then..

      Life is a set of choices, you choose what you do, what you see, what you read…

  9. Pablo

    First, Congrats on setting a new record for SJS50!

    I also enjoy all of the DK articles. I live near the shadows of this great mountain, so, finding "Rainier" in the line made me proud of the abundant rec areas that the PNW has to offer (Baker, Olympics, Central, Adams, St. Helens…). When I began reading this article I was having thoughts of DK & K-Dog's ascend to Mt. Blanc. Looking forward to the video of this PNW gem. Please return and set a new record

    -pt

  10. astroyam

    Mike, I too am a climber, and read those mags sometimes. I think this article by DJ is 100% pertinent to trail running.

    There's a movement/trend now for top trail runners to do speed records on easy climbs. They can run most of it or a lot of it, and basically these easy climbs are a trail. Bottom line is that the speed records on easy climbs are quite slow now because they are done by climbers, whereas it takes top fitness in the running to bring the times down, not the ability to climb 5.14. Or even 5.11. I've skied the Emmons on Rainier, and it's basically a trail (albeit kinda slippery…)

    Besides, DJ's articles are hilarious and from cool places, so thumbs up.

  11. Dbconlin

    It's not hard to get a solo permit. You just have to demonstrate you understand the risks. I got one with only one previous successful summit.

  12. jenn

    I really enjoyed this – not just for the snark and that beautiful description of the forests of the Cascades, but because in a media landscape about all the crazy shit folks do, this was a post about the risks NOT taken. I advocate for smarts in the high country/backcountry!

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