Liberty Ridge rises more than a mile from the Carbon Glacier, directly to Liberty Cap (14,112 ft), the secondary summit of Mount Rainier. This ridge is one of the steepest and most beautiful alpine ribs on "The Mountain". Liberty Ridge is also one of the 50 climbs depicted in Roper and Steck's famous book, "Fifty Classics Climbs of North America". Like many climbers, we go down that list and were hoping to make it our 18th "classic" climb.
Because the descent from Liberty Cap is normally made on the other side of the mountain via an easy non technical route (the Emmons Glacier route), climbing Liberty Ridge means that you have to carry your overnight equipment up and over a 14,000 ft mountain (unless you can climb the 10,000 ft of elevation gain, cross two glaciers and descend another 10,000 ft back to you car in a day... some do). We decided to attempt the route in two days: from the trailhead to Thumb Rock the first, then to the summit and back to the trailhead the next. This makes for a pretty demanding schedule. Including the many ups and downs on the traverse, we covered over 7,000 feet of elevation gain and 8.5 miles the first day. The second day requires a 3,500 feet ascent to the top, followed by a knee-busting 10,000 ft descent. A more gentle 3-day ascent can be done by adding one overnight bivouac at the edge of the Carbon Glacier; we did not think the weather forecast allowed us that luxury.
After a series of long slogs up other volcanoes in the range, and climbing Mount Rainier by the Emmons Glacier just two days earlier, we felt more than ready to tackle Liberty Ridge. As the high pressure system that we had enjoyed during the Emmons climb was scheduled to move out soon, we had to go back up almost immediately. We took one rest day and started to pack our gear again the next. A cold front was forecasted, leaving a two day window of good weather to climb the ridge. To maximize our chances we would start early on the first day, go all the way to Thumb Rock and bivy there, before pushing on to the summit the following night. We tried to go "fast and light". We still ended up with packs weighing about 40 lbs (rope and climbing gear included). This included 20°F down bags, bivy bags, one shovel, food and fuel for two days/nights, puffball parkas and pants, the usual climbing paraphernalia (one ice axe and an ice tool each, a 60 meter by 8.5mm rope, 3 pickets, 2 deadmen and a couple of ice screws), and about 20 packs of GU each.
On June 8, we got up at 11PM and had the usual high carb pre-climbing food (not easy to swallow that early in the night). We then drove to the White River trailhead (4,350 ft), about 30 minutes away. We were making a few adjustments to our packs and putting our boots on (plastic for Lucie, insulated leather for Eric) when we bumped into another climber who was also going up to Thumb Rock that morning but had forgotten the batteries for his headlamp. Since we had packed lighter than usual, the spare batteries had stayed in the bus and we couldn't help him.
We left the trailhead just before 1AM and started the hike to Glacier Basin on a partially snow-covered trail. The snow had melted considerably compared to our first time up, only four days ago. Two hours later, we reached Glacier Basin (5,900 ft) and refilled our water bottles. We then ascended the easy snow slopes toward St Elmo Pass (7,400 ft) where we enjoyed the sunrise. From there, we dropped onto the Winthrop Glacier and crossed it shortly after sunrise. The glacier still had very good snow cover, which made the crossing easy. It is a long ways across the glacier and the broad Curtis ridge though (~3.5 miles)! We arrived at the edge of the Carbon Glacier around 8AM. There, we ran into a party of three rangers who were just breaking camp. They had come down from Thumb Rock the day before and were being called upon to help an injured climber on the Emmons Glacier route. One of the rangers checked our permit. We then dropped on the other side of the ridge and began crossing the Carbon Glacier. After all we had heard and red about that crossing, the glacier seemed surprisingly easy. We skirted easily around a few crevasses. From the glacier, we had magnificent views of the Ridge and could clearly see the biggest rock formation (Thumb Rock, 10,800 ft) where we would spend the night.
Thumb Rock sits about 1,800 ft above the glacier, so we still had a long way to go. It took us about two and a half hours to ascend the moderate snow slopes and some very loose rock bands to our bivy site. We reached Thumb Rock at 1PM and settled into one of the existing snow platforms. We had the place to ourselves. After an early dinner, we were in the bag at 4PM. Shortly after that, another team of two arrived (the climber without headlamp batteries we bumped into at the trailhead early that day). As it turned out, the guy who had forgotten his batteries was a guide. They also had to borrow our shovel and later had problems with their stove and ended up borrowing ours as well. So much for "professional" preparation to a climb. They were lucky to find us there (and our stove) or they would have been without any water for the night and the next day.
We drifted in and out of uneasy sleep until 11:30AM. We then had breakfast and brewed some more water before packing our gear. We roped up and started climbing around 1AM. The summit was only 3,300 ft away but the fatigue accumulated from the exertion of the previous day and the lack of sleep made it seem much further than that. One of the advantages of climbing at night is that you cannot really see where you are going, at least beyond the next several steps. This helps you concentrate on the work at hand (step, breathe, step, breathe,...) instead of worrying about the distance yet to cover.
The snow conditions were excellent on the upper ridge. We followed existing tracks most of the way, which saved some of the work kicking steps where those tracks had not been filled by drifting snow. We did not encounter any significant ice on the route and only placed one picket just before a shallow snow section going around the cliffs above Thumb Rock. The exposure is constant, giving the climb a nice airy feeling, but the slopes are not that steep (50 degrees). The only significant obstacle to steady progress was the bergschrund. We crossed it at a point where there was only a 3 or 4 foot gap, followed by a short snow wall (maybe about 10 feet tall). We belayed this section but did not place intermediate protection as the snow was just too loose. In fact, the diminutive snow step turned into a bit of a struggle, mostly paddling up loose snow and manteling onto ice axes driven horizontally into it!
Above the 'schrund, it is an easy slog up to the summit, which we reached at 7:45AM. It is fair to say we felt just about exhausted. We rested about an hour at the top and brewed some water for the descent. From this point, it is just about exactly 10,000 feet down the Emmons Glacier route to the car! Enough to make your knees hurt for the next few days! We took it slow, stopping at Camp Shurman (9,500 ft) to have something to eat and brewing more water while sitting in the sun. We finally reached the trailhead around 5PM, concluding a brutal 16-hour day. Good climb, great weather, perfect snow, what more to ask? Well, a beer! Or, make that a few!
Mount Rainier, WA - Liberty Ridge
|Rainier and Liberty Ridge seen from the NE at the Colchuck-Dragontail Col.|
|Liberty Ridge from the Carbon glacier.|
|Sunrise at St Elmo Pass.|
|Crossing the Winthrop Glacier.|
|A crevasse on the Winthrop Glacier.|
|The Curtis Ridge and Russel Cliff from the Winthrop Glacier just after sunrise.|
|Looking back toward the Winthrop Glacier.|
|The Ridge; our route in red.|
|Crossing the Carbon Glacier.|
|Climbing moderate snow slopes just below Thumb Rock.|
|Looking back toward Carbon Glacier.|
|Our bivy platform at Thumb Rock.|
|Going up steep slopes above Thumb Rock.|
|Below the icefall just before sunrise.|
|High above the clouds at sunrise.|
|Enjoying views of the icefall.|
|Climbing up the steep slopes below the icefall.|
|Looking back toward St Elmo Pass and the glacier.|
|Traversing under seracs on the Liberty Cap Glacier.|
|Approaching the bergshrund.|
|Looking back toward the valley.|
|Reaching the final obstacle (bergshrund) before the gentle summit of Liberty Cap.|
|Eric crossing the bergshrund.|
|Hazy summit views.|
|... to be on the summit ...|
|... but dead tired ...|
|... and feeling more like this!|
|Climbers on the Emmons Glacier route.|
|Brewing water on the summit before starting the 10,000 ft descent back to the car.|
|Descending toward the saddle between Liberty Cap (in the background) and Columbia Crest.|
|Little Tahoma seen from the Emmons Glacier.|
|Resting at Camp Shurman on the way down (only 5,000 ft more to go).|
|Descending toward Glacier Basin.|
|Eric taking a break.|
|Hiking the trail below Glacier Basin.|