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.
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.
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?
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.